The Importance of Plastics in Modern Society
Plastics have molded the modern world and transformed the quality of life. There is no human activity where plastics do not play a key role from clothing to shelter, from transportation to communication and from entertainment to health care. Plastics, because of its many attractive properties, such as lightweight, high strength and ease of processing, meet a large share of the materials needs of man, and that too at a comparatively lesser cost and causing lesser environmental implications. From practically zero during the beginning of the 20th century, humankind today consumes more than 150 million tons of plastics per year.
Plastics possess a unique combination of properties. Plastics can be super tough, rigid as well as flexible, transparent as well as opaque and can allow permeation or act as a barrier material.
Growing population and material consumption have put severe pressure on our natural resources and fragile eco-systems. The material needs of our population are growing and plastics offer a cost-effective alternative.
Plastics are employed in myriad applications where they actually conserve natural resources. For example, aseptic packaging of food in barrier packaging films will save refrigeration cost and save capital and energy. Edible oils and milk are packaged in flexible packages eliminating the use of tin and glass containers. Rigid HDPE barrels are used for bulk chemical storage instead of steel drums. Apart from conserving natural resources, use of plastics in these applications saves transportation fuel as plastics are substantially lighter than tin, glass or steel.
Safe drinking water in PET bottles is a very common sight nowadays. They provide confidence to the consumer on the quality of water and help reduce water-borne diseases. Advance polymeric membranes help purify water from viruses and bacteria. They also provide potable drinking water from the sea and blackish water through a process of desalination.
The fact that plastics are made from hydrocarbons derived from petroleum, which is non-renewable, has raised questions concerning its sustainability. Nevertheless, the consumption of petroleum hydrocarbon for the production of plastics is less than 5%, the balance being consumed as fuels and energy source. Consequently, the concerns about the sustainability of plastic material is somewhat exaggerated. On the contrary, processing of many natural materials (glass, paper, wood, metals) consume far more energy and thus lead to greater consumption of fossil fuels. Additionally, research and development work currently in progress globally will provide future opportunities to make some of the plastics from biomass and other renewable sources. Thus, plastic manufacture will become even more sustainable in the years to come. It is fair to say that plastics replace several naturals, which are either scarce, consume more energy for processing or cause damage to the eco-system during their production.
Thus the use of plastics makes a positive contribution to the sustainability of earth's resources.
Another issue that is often discussed is whether because of their non-biodegradability, plastics will cause damage to our eco-system
The signature of all natural materials made by the biological process is that they are biodegradable and bio-assimilable. The long life and desirability of plastics, which have made them, a material of choice for many applications is seemingly a disadvantage when it comes to their disposal. However, when handled properly, plastics do little damage to our environment. Plastics have the advantage that they can be easily reprocessed and recycled.
Plastics offer the unique advantage that one can recover the fuel value contained in the hydrocarbon polymer after its use. Plastics can also be made environmentally degradable, especially for packaging applications. There are expectations that in the near future plastics will be made even biodegradable and compostable so that waste plastics can be handled the same way as wet food waste and agricultural waste. The overall eco-friendliness of plastics becomes apparent when one evaluates the total "life cycle", namely, an analysis of raw materials, energy, effluents, methods of disposal etc. of a material from its origin to its final disposal.