Statistics show that approximately 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are discarded annually, which account for the more than 50% of plastic products produced (Andrady 54). A study conducted in 2016 by researchers at the University of California found out that 1.7 grams of microfibers are released every time a synthetic jacket is washed. These statistics are proof of the proliferation of plastics and microplastics in today’s economy and the risk they pose due to poor disposal.
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Plastics are used in all industries primarily because they are cheap, light, cheap, versatile, and convenient. However, the risks they pose to the environment and human health cannot be ignored. Plastic is a popular polymer that is used in the manufacture of a wide range of products. Practically, every industry utilizes it in its manufacturing processes. Plastics and microplastics have become health and environmental hazards because their usage has drastically increased.
In that regard, their production, use, and disposal have become unmanageable. The main objectives of this paper are to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of plastics and microplastics. In addition, it aims to provide recommendations on potential solutions to the challenge, which will mitigate the dangers posed by plastics. It will also include personal experiences and views regarding the issue.
Benefits of Plastics and Microplastics
According to the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), plastic is the most beneficial manufacturing material because it is light, cheap, malleable, and versatile in comparison with other materials such as marble, ceramic, steel, and glassware (Andrady 53).
Versatile and Strong
The SPI argues that its ability to prevent contamination renders it a useful material for use in sterile environments such as hospitals. In that regard, plastic offers a cheap and strong alternative to glass and ceramic (Andrady 120). It is used in the production of kitchenware, boxes, and containers that are used in the preservation of food and beverages. In households, plastics are used to store toxic products such as bleach and caustic cleaners because they are leak-proof and child-resistant (Andrady 120). It is also used to store materials in homes, offices, businesses, and other establishments. Plastics are used in the production of electronics because of their thermal and insulation properties.
Plastic is widely used in packaging because it is light, flexible, durable, and rigid. It is a preferred packaging material because it can be shaped and molded during production to produce storage containers and bags of different shapes, sizes, and colors (Andrady 126). Plastic containers are used for the packaging of household goods, medical products, and research materials (Andrady 122). All sectors of the economy use plastics for different purposes. The polymer is chemical resistant. In that regard, it is widely used in the medical field to store drugs, chemicals, biohazard waste materials, and toxic chemicals.
Plastic is used in the transportation sector because it is durable, tough, and light. In addition, the ease of coloring makes it a suitable material for the manufacture of various products. For instance, it is used to manufacture trunk lids, hoods, bumpers, wheel covers, and fenders (Andrady 122). Plastics are used by manufacturers because they lower the weight of cars and airplanes, thus increasing their power output and efficiency (Andrady 122). Their utilization in the transportation industry is evident everywhere from seats and carpeting to the manufacture of interior panels and polycarbonate windows.
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Mitigation of Climate Change
Proponents of the use of plastics and microplastics argue that they play a key role in the mitigation of climate change because they contribute significantly in saving and conserving energy. According to studies, the plastics industry consumes a paltry 4% of the global oil production as a raw material (Galgani 65). Transport and the production of energy are the major consumers of oil that are the primary contributors to climate change.
Moreover, they argue that energy usage in the production process is negligible when compared to the energy consumption in the manufacture of glass, paper, and metal (Andrady 87). The popularity of renewable energy has increased drastically because it is an alternative to the use of fossil fuels in energy production. The success of alternative energies can be attributed to plastics because they rely on plastics for the manufacture of pipes, rotors, solar panels, and wind turbines.
Drawbacks of Plastics and Microplastics
The world’s obsession with plastics has become problematic because of the mismanagement of their production, use, and disposal. They are filling the planet with toxic chemicals and unrecyclable materials that have severe consequences n both the environment and human health.
Plastics and microplastics are one of the major environmental pollutants. The chemicals contained in plastics such as mercury, lead compounds, brominated flame retardants, and cadmium are released into the environment when these materials are discarded (Bergman et al. 67). Since the 2000s, these chemicals have been building up in the environment (Bergman et al. 67). Plastic is ubiquitous as it clogs drainage systems, litters the environment, and destroys marine habitats. Studies have shown that the rate of plastics’ accumulation in the oceans is alarming and could kill marine animals such as whales and turtles (Galgani 74).
Microplastics accumulate in water bodies from different sources (Bergman et al. 67). For example, a study conducted by Water World revealed that approximately 70,000 microscopic plastic fibers are released into the environment every time a washing machine is used (Andrady 128). In addition, microbeads from cosmetics and personal care products are released into the environment and cause pollution (Galgani 99). Plastics comprise one of the main products of fracking that pollute water, air, and soil through the release of toxins.
The largest percentage of plastics and microplastics used are non-biodegradable. In addition, a small percentage of discarded plastics and microplastics are recycled. Most of them end up in landfills where they cause soil and water pollution through the leaching of potentially toxic substances (Bergman et al. 67). Researchers have argued that the accumulation of microplastics in soils, freshwater, and sediments could have severe consequences on those ecosystems if the problem is not mitigated (Galgani 108).
They have estimated that the rate of terrestrial microplastic pollution could be 20 times higher than in marine ecosystems. Most plastics that are discarded into the environment disintegrate into microplastics that persist because they cannot be broken down further. Researchers have expressed concerns that these microplastics are entering the food chain and posing health risks to humans.
The chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics pose serious health risks to human beings. For instance, phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) interfere with the natural hormone levels in humans (Andrady 228). In that regard, they cause the lowering of testosterone levels in men and the premature puberty in girls. In addition, they contain toxic chemicals that cause endocrine disruption that is a major cause of immune system suppression, cancers, developmental problems in children, and birth defects (Andrady 231).
I believe that the use of plastics and microplastics is inevitable because cheaper and more effective alternatives are unavailable. Moreover, its versatility and widespread application in various industries is an indicator of its increased utilization in future. However, it is important to consider its implications on the environment and human health. I believe that the extensive application of plastics and microplastics is evidence of the materials’ numerous benefits.
Other materials such as glass, metal, and ceramic are limited in their use as they are light and expensive to produce. I encounter plastics in my every day activities. For example, the toothbrush, food containers, and various car components are made of plastic.
Therefore, it is difficult to eliminate them from the economy without compromising the stability of several industries. I have also observed the extent of environmental pollution caused by plastics and microplastics. The major problem is the durability and non-biodegradable nature of many plastics. They persist in the environment for long periods and cause pollution of land and water. Moreover, recycling methods are not effective because they do not eliminate plastics from the environment entirely but use them for other purposes.
Possible Future Directions
The development of innovative recycling methods for plastics is one of the most effective mitigation strategies for the challenge of plastics and microplastics management. For example, a French company known as PLAST’IF has developed an innovative technology to recycle plastics by converting them to usable products (Lebleu 2018). The company transforms plastics into wire that can be used in several ways that include furniture and office supplies.
Another innovative technology has been developed by an Indonesian company known as Inter Aneka Lestari Kimia, PT. The company’s goal is to eliminate plastic bags by using a biodegradable bio-based polymer to manufacture bags (Lebleu 2018). In future, these two technologies can be embraced and improved upon to address the challenge of the proliferation of plastics and microplastics. Plastics are biodegradable but after 100 to 400 years.
Research should be conducted to develop enzymes that can speed up the biodegradation of plastics. In 2016, a bacterium that eats plastics was discovered and led to the creation of a mutant enzyme that biodegrades polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that is used in the manufacture of soft drink bottles (Carrington 2018). Additional research should be conducted in order to improve the action of the enzyme and make it a viable large-scale solution.
Plastics and microplastics are a major source of environmental pollution. Moreover, they pose serious health risks to human beings. The use of plastic is one the rise as different industries have developed uses for the material. Plastics are beneficial because they are light, versatile, rigid, chemical proof, cheap, and durable. In that regard, they are used in the packaging, transportation, and manufacturing industries. Despite their benefits, they have several drawbacks.
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They are non-biodegradable, pollute the environment and pose health risks to human health. The development of innovative recycling technologies and the creation of enzymes that biodegrade plastics are examples of mitigation strategies that should be pursued in the future to address the aforementioned challenge. Some companies have already developed effective innovative technologies that recycle plastics into useful products.
Andrady, Anthony L. Plastics and Environmental Sustainability. John Wiley & Sons, 2015.
Bergman, Melanie, Lars Gutow, and Klaages Michael, editors. Marine Anthropogenic Litter. Springer, 2015.
Carrington, Damian. “Scientists Accidentally Create Mutant Enzyme that Eats Plastic Bottles.” The Guardian. Web.
Galgani, Francois, Christopher Pham, and Julia Reisser, editors. Plastic Pollution. Frontiers Media SA, 2017.
Lebleu, Tristan. “Earth Day 2018: Solutions to End Plastic pollution Exist.” SolarImpulseFoundation. Web.