As well as any person, even every inanimate thing has its lifecycle. However, very often just some aspects of the plastic lifecycle are discussed. Evaluation of material sustainabilitySustainability as defined by European Bioplastics, has three dimensions: economic, social and environmental. This has been known as “the triple bott… More must consider all the steps in its lifecycle. From the cradle to the grave and even beyond.
The life of plastic starts with the manufacturer. We can distinguish plastic according to its origin:
Not only the raw material but also the energy demand and environmental footprint of the manufacturing process must be considered. Most of the CO2 equivalents are emitted during production and transport.1
In this step, the global society can consider the necessity of the products and reduce consumption.
This is the point when plasticsMaterials with large molecular chains of natural or fossil raw materials, produced by chemical or biochemical reactions. More are useful. In some segments, the useful period of plastic life is very long – the average lifetime of plasticsMaterials with large molecular chains of natural or fossil raw materials, produced by chemical or biochemical reactions. More in construction is 35 years.2 On the other hand, answer yourself how long an average plastic bag is useful.
In this step of the plastic lifecycle, consumers can reuse plastic products.
The end of plastic life is abundantly discussed. This is the part of the cycle that looks disgusting – the whole planet is a plastic grave. But “End of Life” is not the end of the impact.
Oil industry profits on sources they take from the ground for free. Consumers buy cheap things and discard them also for free or for a small municipal waste fee. The global society lives on debt, which is paid by nature. We have to invest not only in the production of new things but also in waste management. It will be paid anyway – we just have to choose whether we pay it by the intelligent design of consumables and effective waste management, or by the negative impact of plastic pollution. Choosing the first option is called the circular economy.
Landfilling is the most common waste management option. Landfills represent significant environmental and health risk – chemicals leaching, landfill fires, source of plastic pollution when the landfill is damaged, etc.
Incineration solves just one of (micro)plasticsMaterials with large molecular chains of natural or fossil raw materials, produced by chemical or biochemical reactions. More negative impacts. The plastic items disappear, but chemical pollutionChemical pollutants mostly result from various human activities like the manufacturing, handling, storing, and disposing of chemicals. These occur in … and climate threat sustain. PlasticsMaterials with large molecular chains of natural or fossil raw materials, produced by chemical or biochemical reactions. More transform into greenhouse gases, air pollutants, wastewater, and heat by burning.
Incineration can be coupled with energy production (waste-to-energy). That is the preferred way, it does not solve the negative impacts, though. After the transition to green energy, plasticsMaterials with large molecular chains of natural or fossil raw materials, produced by chemical or biochemical reactions. More incineration will become one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases in Europe.1
Plastic degrades very slowly. It persists in the environment for decades or longer. In contrast, biodegradableBiodegradation is the breakdown of organic matter by microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi. materials involving natural polymers like Hydal PHAPolyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) or the polyhydroxy fatty acids, are a family of biodegradable polyesters. As in many mammals, including humans, that hold … More are consumed by microorganisms.
Learn more about biodegradability and bioplasticsBioplastics (as defined by European Bioplastics e.V.) is a term used to define two different kinds of plastics: • Plastics based on renewable resour… More.
Reduce, reuse, recycle – cliché, but still valid. Recycling is the best End of Life.
According to estimates, only 11 % of total municipal plastic waste produced in 2019 was recycled.3 Only 30 % of EU plastic waste is collected for recycling, half of which is shipped to countries outside of the EU to be processed. From 2021 on, the new EU Commission Delegated Regulation (2020/2174) at least bans the shipment of unrecyclable plastic waste to developing countries.4
1 Kistler, A. and C. Muffett, 2019. Plastic & Climate, The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet. www.ciel.org/plasticandclimate
2 Geyer, R., J. R. Jambeck and K. L. Law. Production, use, and fate of all plasticsMaterials with large molecular chains of natural or fossil raw materials, produced by chemical or biochemical reactions. More ever made. Science Advances. 2017, 3(7): e1700782. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782.
3 Filiciotto, L. and G. Rothenberg. Biodegradable PlasticsBiodegradable plastics are plastics that are completely assimilated by the microorganisms present a defined environment as food for their energy. The … More: Standards, Policies, and Impacts. ChemSusChem. 2020, n/a(n/a). doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/cssc.202002044.
4 Steinhorst, J. and K. Beyerl. First reduce and reuse, then recycle! Enabling consumers to tackle the plastic crisis – Qualitative expert interviews in Germany. Journal of Cleaner Production. 2021: 127782. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.127782.