Plastics: the Basics

What is plastic?

Plastic is a loaded word nowadays, almost synonymous with the fast-paced, throwaway consumer society in which we live. In a relatively short amount of time (the first fully synthetic plastic Bakelite was invented in 1907) our lives have been revolutionised by these synthetic polymers. 

Most plastics are made from carbon atoms from petroleum and other fossil fuels. These long chains of carbon are formed into a variety of strong and flexible structures which provide a wealth of alternatives to the natural resources that the Earth has to offer. Nylon for example, was invented in 1935 as a substitute for silk to be used in parachutes and ropes. Plastics were inexpensive and provided hygienic ways to package consumer goods as well as in industrial settings such as PVC piping and other manufacturing. Many medical innovations could never have occurred without the proliferation of plastics and their use has undoubtedly saved lives.

Plastic and Sustainability

Plastic may be low-cost but often single-use plastics are an environmental hazard. They may be used for a short period of time – long enough to drink a 500ml beverage – but will last for hundreds of years in the environment. Plastics may break up into smaller pieces known as microplastics which have been found in marine life, in our tap water and even in human tissue. It can take up to 500 years for a plastic bottle to decompose in landfill. 

A huge shift in consciousness is required to move away from single-use plastics in order to preserve the finite quantity of resources we have for those applications where it really is required. 

Plastic recycling began in the 1980s, an initiative by the industry to absolve them of some environmental guilt, perhaps! Whilst the global recycling capacity has come a long way since then, there are serious limitations to the ability to recover viable materials from plastics. It is challenging to develop the infrastructure and logistics to separate collected materials into the different types as well as low collection rates in most countries. Due to difficulties achieving high-quality uncontaminated materials, plastics are often downcycled, for example PVC from plastic bottles could become traffic cones, or PET bottles could be spun into fibres for polyester clothing. 

Waste plastics that cannot be separated by type could become plastic lumber – you may have seen park benches made from this material. The original material’s life may have been extended but at the end of the day, the material could not be recycled again. True recycling of materials such as PET bottles, when they are reprocessed into new products of equivalent value – a new rPET bottle for example, can only occur a finite number of times before the polymer is degraded and has to be downcycled. 

Plastics in Ireland and the EU

A significant victory for the issue of plastic waste in the EU was achieved in July 2021 when the Single Use Plastic Directive was introduced. This banned the sale of certain plastic goods such as cotton buds, disposable cutlery, plates, straws and expanded polystyrene food and drink containers. These products now have to be made from alternative environmentally friendly materials, such as paper stem cotton buds or wooden disposable cutlery. There is now huge demand for recycled plastic products in the market and many brands are shifting their packaging to partially or fully recycled content. 

Ireland plans to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme for plastic drinks bottles as well as aluminium cans by the end of 2022 which will hopefully encourage consumers to increase collection and recycling of these items. The recycling industry will then be able to develop further due to increased volumes and revenue streams, all this helping us to develop a more circular economy for plastics and reduce our dependence on virgin oil-based plastics. 

The business case for tackling your business’s use of plastics

How many plastic items are used in your workplace that could be replaced or removed completely? Your business could reduce costs and save on efficiency by cutting out single use plastic. Reducing plastic use is an important issue to many of your customers and employees. A plastic reduction programme can help you to build customer loyalty and employee engagement. 

Want to find out some ways to reduce plastic in your workplace?