There is rapid growth in environmental problems all over the world, which could be attributed to a rapid increase in population growth, putting a lot of strain on the environment as well as natural resources. Several domains contribute to environmental degradation, some of which include; industrial pollution, deforestation, land degradation, and urbanization, amongst others. There is eminent overexploitation of the country’s resources making environmental pollution one of the biggest threats facing life on the planet earth today.
Statistics given by the World Health Organization estimates that about two million people die every year out of air pollution besides those who suffer ailments and diseases caused by the same. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries recorded considerable growth in the plastic industry, viewed as one of the major contributors to the economy. Plastics have affected every area of our lives ranging from health, safety, as well as a peaceful environment. They have unique characteristics that have enabled their use and application in packaging products as well as other uses. Some of its qualities include; being light in weight and the ability to be used for longer periods of time. Some of the materials used to make plastics include; Bakelite, cellophane, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, amongst others.
These materials have been in use since the beginning of the twentieth century to-date (American Plastics Council). Plastics present one of the potential sources of pollution since they are made through polymerization of petroleum derivatives such as low-molecular-weight monomers and organic materials. Plastics have one important property, which makes them be easily shaped to any form. They have other desirable properties, which has seen them being preferred to other materials such as metals and glass. However, their rate of consumption has raised concern within various sectors involving the consumption of natural resources such as oil, the level of toxicity associated with their production and use as well as environmental impacts (American Plastics Council).
Societal Issues tied to production, distribution, and use of plastics based on research
In terms of social issues, research reveals consumers find it convenient to use plastic bags since they are cheap, functional, light, and presentable in the transportation of food and goods. Statistics done in Australia by Working Group organization in partnership with Clean up Australia found that of those surveyed, the majority were concerned about the effects of the plastic bags on wildlife. Over 70% found no need to use alternative bags, and over 60% found it unnecessary to reuse the plastic bag.
European governments have, on the other hand, implemented Producer Responsibility mechanisms to deal with plastics. The measures focus on the various methods through which the plastics could be recycled and recovered from waste. The packaging industry works closely with bodies responsible for collecting and recycling the wastes paying them a considerable amount of fee for their services (Environmental Literacy Council).
There has been a growing concern about the use of plastics, especially when it comes to packaging. This has been accompanied by poor disposal of plastic wastes, which normally takes a long time to decompose within landfills. Manufacture of plastics at times leads to toxic effluents, which can turn hazardous on exposure to the environment. Concrete industrial practices are required for the purposes of minimizing workers’ exposure to harmful fumes while working within plastic industries. Various problems have been experienced with workers exposed to vapor from toxic vinyl chloride emitted in the process of producing polyvinyl chloride. This has since led to the development of clean processes referred to as “green processes,” which helps in avoiding the use of harmful substances (U.S. Plastics Industry).
Plastic pellets that spill into sewerage systems at times find their way into the sea and turn harmful to the wildlife, which consumes them owing to their resemblance to food. Plastics are known to be relatively inert biologically. Parts of their components are non-plastic, which are considered undesirable in their use for food applications. A good example is a ban that was instituted on the use of polyacrylonitrile on beverage bottles because some of its components were carcinogenic. Improper use of plastics has also proved detrimental since some plastics decompose on exposure to high temperatures producing toxic products (U.S. Plastics Industry).
Several governments have designed a range of approaches in dealing with the nuisance caused by plastic bags. In South Africa, for instance, the annual consumption of plastic bags reaches close to eight billion. This has made the government regulate its use by allowing only thicker and more durable plastics to be manufactured and making them possible for reuse. The aim is to make the use of plastic bags more expensive for consumers. Most of the Far-East countries have greatly discouraged the use of plastic bags and even imposed tax on the usage of the bags in countries such as Ireland. The nature of the collection of waste in most of these countries seems to be labor-intensive attributable to a lack of modernized and automated waste management services (U.S. Plastics Industry).
At the same time, few organizations get involved in the collection of plastic wastes, with the municipal workers charged with the major responsibility of collecting all waste, especially in developing countries. According to Environmental Literacy Council, a survey by the National Institute of Urban Affairs which sampled over one hundred cities drawn from developing nations revealed that the efficiency with which plastic and other wastes were collected read below 75%, which is below the range expected for developed countries.
Discussion on economic issues; how the cost of plastic compares to other similar materials and the nature of labor used for production processes.
There are several environmental costs and benefits associated with the utilization of plastics. Research reveals that plastics have been preferred in many sectors hence replacing natural materials such as wood as well as ivory. Synthetic fibers associated with plastics have also provided a good substitute for cotton, which is considered to be a labor and energy-intensive crop. The application of plastics within the automobile industry seems convenient since it helps in reducing their weight hence uses less fuel during travel.
Its application in homes has also proved cost-effective since it reduces the amount of energy required for heating and cooling homes. Widespread use of plastic bags proves costly since a lot of cash is involved in the process of cleaning up the discarded plastic bags. Statistics in Australia indicated that they use in excess of six billion plastic bags per year.
The plastic bags, as mentioned earlier, are manufactured from ethylene, which is a by-product of non-renewable oil resources. Research in Australia revealed that the manufacture of plastic bags used less energy compared to the manufacture of paper bags; the researchers estimated that the production process consumed 40% less energy as well as less percentage solid waste and emissions. The cost of distributing plastic bags is less compared to paper bags and other materials since less fuel is used, hence a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of manufacturers, as well as consumers, have, in large numbers, adopted the use of plastic products utilized in various items from plastic bottles to electrical gadgets.
Packaging materials form the highest percentage of plastic materials on sale, standing at 26%, followed by building and construction at 22%, consumers use approximately 15%exports and transportation estimated at 10 and 5 %, respectively. In the packaging, there is a considerably reduced benefit concerning its use since materials required for supplying products are reduced while the functions remain constant. The nature of plastics being light could be used to offset higher rates of recycling other materials.
Due to the fact that plastics are displacing other materials in every sector where applicable, the production level of the product is on the increase. The production rate of plastics is higher than the rate of recycling, and this has made it difficult for waste management systems to cope with the situation. However, plastic recycling gains have been rated high currently, owing to the fact that they were non-existent during earlier years. But the gains are lower when compared with other materials due to low recycling rates of plastics (U.S. Plastics Industry).
Plastic industry experience frustrations due to the fact that their ability to recycle seems low, hence not readily recognized by environmental groups and local governments. Dealing with plastics has proved expensive since the recycling market is very expensive. A good example is revealed in the use of bottled water, whose market has increased rapidly at the rate of 10% annually. The research revealed that in California, the use of bottled plastic containers increased while recycling rates dropped, making plastic recycling rates to be lower compared to that of other materials such as steel, glass, or paper. Aluminum presents one of the materials with a higher recycling rate, with glass having a higher demand for recycled products (U.S. Plastics Industry).
There are numerous environmental issues associated with plastic bags since they do not readily break down when exposed to the environment. Research estimates the decomposition time of plastics to be between twenty to one hundred years. The plastic bags have been associated with serial killers since the animal killed through the ingestion of plastic decays much faster than the plastic itself. This makes it possible for the plastic bag to be released back to the environment hence exposing it further to other animals. This, therefore, means that each plastic bag used accumulates into the environment leading to the compounding of the problem. Plastic bag’s ability to clog drainage results in major flooding within various regions, a good example being Bangladesh.
Plastics can be designed to fit numerous uses ranging from soda bottles made from Polyethylene terephthalate, milk bottles made from high-density plastics, egg crates made from expandable polystyrene, and PVC for water pipes, amongst others. Plastics have the capability of being molded into several shapes making the material become one of the central players within the modern economy. However, the issue of waste management within countries involves a lot of activities and practices such as collection, storing, handling as well as disposal, which at times present potential environmental and public health risks.
Most cities and towns within developing countries have, for many years, encountered considerable challenges towards the management of plastic waste. These challenges arise due to multiple factors such as inappropriate waste disposal techniques and poor infrastructure, which could possibly guarantee sufficient collection and recycling of plastic waste.
Plastics’ nature of low density and slowness in decomposition makes the material a major pollutant. However, measures have been put in place, enabling the recycling of scrap plastics by manufacturers for the purposes of yielding superior products. Research reveals that there was an increase in the amount of plastic recycled, with over one million pounds of plastic bottles undergoing recycling in the year 2000 within Australia alone.
However, it has to be noted that recycling has the capability of offering distinct advantages concerning environmental and economic benefits on the disposal of waste materials. Recycling plastics reduces the rate of extraction of natural resources such as gas and oil from which plastics are derived. A lot of energy is used in the process of extracting and refining oil, and such cost could be reduced through the recycling of plastics.
Plastic bags are of significant concern with regard to littering, especially in the marine environment. They form harmful debris to marine life since it sometimes causes suffocation and ingestion problems to aquatic life. On the dry land, the plastic bags normally cause blockage to gutters hence creating floods with stormwater. Their nature of being light makes the plastic bags to be easily carried by wind leading to inadvertent litter on land.
The idea of recycling and reuse of plastic waste products presents one of the splendid applications of waste management strategies. Contrary to the developed countries, the majority of the developing and third world countries have relatively lower consumption levels on plastic products. This shows that most of their recycling practices are quite often guided by traditional values as well as the prevailing socio-economic conditions (Environmental Literacy Council). Most of the environmental campaigns on the right disposal and recycling of wastes has been staged by NGOs, environmental organizations, municipal councils, and other stakeholders concerned with the culture of recycling (Environmental Literacy Council).
Conclusively, the conventional approaches of plastic waste management used in most developing countries seem ineffective. There is a need to involve the formal sector as well as creating public awareness concerning the dangers posed by poor disposal of plastic waste products. Frequent recycling by the use of modern technology in developed countries has provided fresh solutions to the waste menace. All the measures taken by developed countries and influential organizations should as well be practiced in other countries and include informal sectors as well as municipal councils. The nature of the recycling method adopted would determine the level of plastic waste control within specific regions.
The governments should move swiftly from the centralized model and involve other small players such as the community groups as well as the private sector. There is a need for more aggressive campaigns capable of educating the population on good management of plastic wastes as well as the benefits of recycling. Effective management of plastic waste presents serious challenges to the majority of developing countries hence posing considerable environmental hazards. On the other hand, there has been an exponential increase in the rate of plastic waste products due to urbanization, globalization, and population growth.
American Plastics Council. Understanding Plastic Film: Its Uses, Benefits and Waste Management Options. NY: Headley Pratt Consulting, 1997.
American Plastic Council. Plastics Industry Statistics: Year in Review. 2009. Web.
Environmental Literacy Council. Plastics. 2008. Web.
U.S. Plastics Industry. The Society of Plastic Industries. 2009. Web.