Materials touted as “all natural alternatives” to plastic were often actually replaced by plastic decades ago because it was better for the environment.
Plastics have been saving the planet since long before there was Earth Day, an annual event supporting environmental conservation. Despite the massive amount of single use plastic waste that irresponsibly enters our oceans, plastics actually play an important role in protecting the environment.
In 1869, John Wesley Hyatt used natural cellulose to create a substitute for the ivory used in piano keys, billiard balls, and similar products. The result was a substantial decrease in the slaughter of elephants for their tusks. Hyatt’s invention also replaced tortoise shells used for jewelry, hair combs, picture frames, and many more household items. New plastics were then created and quickly began replacing other environmentally harmful materials. In the 20th century, plastics began to replace paper, natural rubber, and even silk, all of which prevents deforestation.
The reality is that plastic has saved many species from possible extinction expanding access to products for working and middle-class people.
Plastics also replace energy-intensive iron and steel in auto manufacturing, construction and process industries. Examples include better wearing composite stripper blades in steel mills and nylon sheaves used in construction cranes.
Plastics Offer Safety Advantages
From sheaves for lifting equipment to slipper blocks in steel mills to slide bars on pile driving equipment to car windows and aircraft hangar door rollers, plastics offer a greater degree of safety. Typically, about 1/7th the weight of steel, iron or bronze, installation is much easier with one person able to install components that used to take two people or even a crane. Yes, finding discarded plastic bottles along the road is irritating – but those of us with some years behind us remember all the broken glass from beer and soda bottles along the road that used to take out our tires. Glass processes at ~2800F in an extremely long process – that’s over 5 times the temperature, and vastly more energy, required than to make plastic bottles
Plastics Actually SAVE Energy and Water Resources
Plastics save water and energy, too. Corroding metal pipes result in the loss of ~17% of all water pumped in the United States and more than $50 billion a year in maintenance and replacement costs. Plastic piping can last more than a century and corrosion resistant plastics extended the life of pumper truck tank applications in agriculture and fire-fighting equipment. Plastic insulation saves 40 times the energy required to make it while offering excellent shipping/fuel cost savings.
Plastics Benefit Conservation
Plastics are important to virtually every human activity today, including environmental conservation. Waste management and recycling is a major focus of the plastics industry as a means to continue society’s progress.
The same spirit of innovation that created environmentally responsible replacements for ivory and tortoise shell is developing new materials, designs, and recycling methods that conserve resources and reclaim the value of used or discarded plastic.
Recycling innovations include optical sorting, light-reflection technology to identify a variety of difficult-to-sort recyclable materials. Advanced recycling is an environmentally safe process that returns plastic to its basic chemical building blocks for reuse.
Let’s Focus on What Works-
Today, innovation in life-cycle technology is the best key for the world to continue to reap the benefits of composite materials while minimizing solid waste. Companies are now transforming windshield safety glass into new carpets and removing contaminants from recycled material to produce near-virgin-quality resins. In one case, a parking lot was paved with the equivalent of 71,000 recycled plastic bags.
Did you know plastic bags require 70% less energy and 96% less water to manufacture than paper bags? And you can’t pave a parking lot with paper bags.
Constant innovation is why we should never ban plastic materials or products that conserve resources and protect the environment — important to remember on Earth Day and every day!
There are bills in Congress offering practical, bipartisan solutions. The RECOVER Act would improve collection and sorting of recyclable materials. The RECYCLE Act would fund public awareness of recycling options. The Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act would develop new recycling technologies.
When activists seek to ban or severely restrict the usage of plastic, it’s important to consider what materials would serve as replacements. More often than not, plastic actually replaced these other materials decades ago due, in part, to being more environmentally friendly. Let’s embrace innovation and build upon what works!
Tom Connelly is a self proclaimed “Street Engineer” with over 40 years in the plastics industry.