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Can Composite Materials and Plastics Really Help the Environment?

Food. Transportation. Fashion. Travel. Just about everything we do today somehow ends up hurting the planet even further. Plastic, one of the most useful, yet one of the most disastrous creations of man, has often been held responsible for damaging the environment and causing pollution. In fact, more advanced forms of plastic such as composite materials and engineered thermoplastics have often been at the receiving end of hate and anger as well. And considering the kind of pollution that plastic really does lead to, you’d think that saying no to plastic is the right thing to do. Is it?

Everything might not be as doomy and gloomy as your favorite news outlets would have you believe. The American Chemistry Council released a report prepared by a firm called Trucost in the month of July titled “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement”.

The firm behind this report was responsible for creating a high-profile study for the UN Environment Program back in the year 2014, and they decided to use the same methodologies and metrics used for accounting for this report as well. What the report essentially tries to point out is that while there is no denying the fact that plastics because irreparable damage the environment, the environmental cost of replacing plastics with alternative materials has been projected to be four times worse.

In fact, the firm projects environmental costs to increase to $533 billion (rising from $139 billion). This cost takes into account transportation, energy recovery costs, production costs, ocean damage and recycling. So do we keep increasing the use of conventional plastic? Certainly not! The study offers key recommendations which could help reduce the environmental costs by 41 billion dollars. These recommendations revolve around using engineered thermoplastics, natural sources of energy such as hydro-electric, wind and solar, by using more fuel-efficient modes of transport and also by reducing certain materials used in food, ice and soft drink packaging by 30 percent.

The study further delves into the benefits that plastics have to offer in terms of reduction of food waste. A food item wrapped in plastic can last for a longer period of time, thereby helping to somewhat dampen the ever-increasing pressure on food growers. You may have often seen sirloin steaks, potatoes, cucumbers and lettuce wrapped in plastics, and now you know why. It is believed that for every 1% sirloin that is packed in composite materials instead of conventional plastics, the environmental damage can be reduced by as much as $2.2 million.

Plastics may be challenging the environment, pushing it to the extreme, but a lot of that can be put down to human misuse of the material. And yes, even though it does harm the environment, there are other materials that do too. What we ultimately need to decide on is whether to say no to conventional plastics and say yes to engineered thermoplastics, or continue to look for alternatives, which given the current technologies, keeps making matters worse.

Returning back to the days where inefficient packaging and the absence of composite materials led to heavy appliances and food waste is sure to have a huge impact on energy consumption and greenhouse gases, and there’s finally some data to bank on!



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