Plastic is a very controversial subject, and the global anti-plastic movement is growing as we speak. As a vegan, it is hard not to buy for example shoes and bags made from some sort of plastic fabric. But is it all bad? This is a very complex matter with more than one side to it. I thought I´d try, in a very easy way, to list the pros and cons about this material. I am in no way an expert on this subject, but I have done a fair bit of research and taken advice from my material engineering boyfriend.
This is what I´ve found.
What is plastic?
Let´s start by clearing out what this material is, and what it´s made from.
Plastic is made from a mix of something called polymere and other ingredients. A polymere is a chemical compound (kemisk förening), derived from most commonly oil. It can also be made from plants, like corn, cellulose, or sugar canes – in other words, it has an organic origin. A polymere is not plastic, it is a part of a plastic material. To create plastic, different ingredients are added depending on what kind of function the plastic will have. To give an example: polyester – poly+ester – often used in clothes, is a mix of polymere and something called ester monomere. The indredients added to the polymere are often of a chemical, not organic, origin.
Plastic should thus be seen, not as one material, but as an umbrella term of different materials made from polymere + something else. Depending on what that ‘something else’ is, the function and ecological effect of the material will differ.
Plastic – the bad stuff
It´s often made from oil
Oil is a non-renewable resource , meaning that we cannot, in an easy, energy efficient and economicly sustainable way, create more. One day the oil in the earth will most likely run out, and then what do we do? There are synthetical oils on the market, but not with the function or of the amount that would be needed to replace organic oil.
The oil industry is one the most dirty and non-eco friendly indystries there are.
It´s not bio-degradable
Oil s very hard to degrade in nature, and the same applies for that reason on plastic materials. Also, the composition created when mixing polymere with chemicals is very strong and has no natural bio-degradable properties, which means that it wont degrade if it ends up in nature, at least not for maaaany years. One huge problem all over the world today is all the plastic that ends up in nature and in the oceans, creating lots of damage to the wildlife and polluting its surroundings.
Pretty much all plastics materials releases tiny tiny bits of plastic when used. This ends up in our bodies and in nature. Since it´s not bio-degradable, this is probably not a good thing. I still haven´t found any facts that can say exactly why this is bad, but many experts believe that this will make us sick in one way or another.
Lots of chemicals
The ingredients mixed with the polymere are sometimes harsh chemicals that can be harmful to our health and to nature. In chemistry, pretty much everything has some sort of natural origin. The problem occurs when a substance is taken from its natural habitat and put somewhere else. Let´s take PVC, polyvinyl chloride, as an example. Salt contains natrium chloride, and in that relationship, chloride is not harmful. However, when combined with polyvinyl, it develops bad effects, carcinogenic (cancerframkallande) for example.
Plastic – the good stuff
The chemical bond in plastic makes it very durable, which is a good thing from a sustainability angle. The less it breaks, the less you have to consume new products. The high consumption rate in the world today is, if you ask me, the biggest issue of all when it comes to living a sustainable life.
We can create so many different types of plastic that can be used for alomost everything, from cars and tools to clothes and accessories.
In the process of producing plastic materials, very little energy has to be used. It is also a very low-cost procedure. It is important to remember, that sustainability has many angles: envrironmental, social, and economical. From an environmental aspect, the low energy use is a very good thing (think about where most energy comes from – oil, or other dirty sources).
Bio-plastics and recycling
If we treat plastic as any other trash, and actually throw it in a bin instead of in nature, much of the problem goes away. Plastic can also be recycled, which means it is given new life – another way not to overuse our natural resources. It is still a quite limited process though, where the plastic has to be completely clean and of the same sort – you can´t mix PET with polyester, for example.
Bio-plastics are not made from oil, but from cellulose, corn or sugar canes. A better and more sustainable source than oil, and some of these plastic materials can even be bio-degradable.
As I stated in the beginning of this article, plastic is a complicated subject. I see areas where it can be very beneficial, and others where it is just bad and unnecessary. These are my personal conclusions:
- The main benefits with these materials are low costs and low energy use
- The worst about them are the micro-plastics
- We don´t have to stop using plastic all together, however we need to use much less than we do today
- Always recycle plastic, or at least throw it in the bin!
- I will try to look for recycled, bio-degradable and bio-based plastics over oil-based ones
- We can hardly escape from the problem with micro-plastics. Using less is the only way to solve this problem, right now at least.
How about you, what is your view on plastic materials? Do you have any advice on how to use and buy less of it? Please share in the comments!