Sunday, September 22, 2019

Plastics Everywhere

Dustin Hoffman’s breakout film role as Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 movie The Graduate featured a young man fresh out of college. During a tête-à-tête with a family friend, Mr. Mcguire, Benjamin received a one-word career advice: “Plastics.” For emphasis, Mcguire repeated, There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Sure enough, in the aftermath of this fictional exchange, many S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) undergraduates, and graduate students, followed Mr. Mcguire’s counsel by studying polymer science, chemical engineering, plastics technology, and related courses. Indeed, there was strong evidence that the so-called petro-plastics industry boomed in subsequent decades.

More than half a century later, were the avatar of Mcguire to offer a similar career tip, what would it be? In one word, probably: “Data.” And it does seem as if many of today’s Benjamin Braddocks are opting for careers in fields like computer engineering, data science and cybersecurity. In the past decade, the amount of data generated worldwide has exploded, thujump-starting the so-called Big Data Mining and Analytics revolution. Without question, the data economy is reshaping all aspects of our lives. For instance, the volume of data produced annually between 2010 and 2019 increased twentyfold to about 40 zettabytes (40 X 1021 bytes!). With the advent of 5G communications networks and Internet-of-Things, this figure is expected to continue its steep ascent.

Connecting the dots from plastics to data, however spurious, underscores the pervasive nature of both. The quantum of structured data, residing in companies’ data warehouses and data marts, as well as in cloud storage, in addition to an avalanche of unstructured data created on social media platforms and across the Internet, can only be imagined. Overwhelmed by 24-hour news cycles and, with search engines enabling instantaneous access to unlimited gobs of knowledge assets, the sense of information overload is palpable, where once there was scarcity.

However, unlike 1s and 0s abstractions that make up data bits and bytes, plastic is a tangible, organic material. Thanks to Mr. Mcguire and other boosters of the powerful petrochemical industry, it seems as though the world has been overrun by plastic products. Producers and governments everywhere are culpable, and the conspiracy of silence about the environmental ramifications has been deafening. 

So, how did we arrive at this juncture? Synthetic plastic was invented in the US about 112 years ago, but it was the discovery of nylon, a purely synthetic fibre, in 1939 that transformed the polymer industry. Plastics are organic polymers produced from petrochemical compounds, as well as from natural substances like corn and cotton. To provide some perspective, before plastics became ubiquitous, manufacturers and fabricators utilised substrates such as wood, metal, glass, ceramic and stone. Relative to the physical properties of these materials, plastic is not only low-cost but water-resistant, malleable and highly moldable, making it the first and sometimes the only choice for casting many familiar products.

It is important to acknowledge the immense benefits that plastics have contributed to economies globally. Aside from large-scale applications in industries as diverse as automotive and construction, plastics are so versatile that nowadays they show up just about everywhere - in healthcare, agriculture, electronics, toys and sporting goods. In addition, plastic exists in everyday products such as chewing gum, bottle caps and packaging. Without exaggeration, it is difficult to imagine the retail industry devoid of food wrappers and plastic grocery bags. Indeed, while packaging represents as much as a third of plastic use in industrialised economies, the figure is over 40% in India and many developing countries.

On the downside, the more dependent we have become on plastics, accentuated by our mobile lifestyles, so have environmental concerns grown, due to the slow decomposition rates of plastic products. It is estimated that it takes between 50 and 500 years for items like plastic cups, cigarette butt filters, and disposable nappies to fully degrade. Concerned or not, there has been no escaping the horrific images splashed on television screens of dead marine creatures along seafronts, shown with plastic fibres and fragments in their digestive tracts. To my mind, it would take someone with a strong stomach not to retch or turn away in disgust.

Despite the best intentions, recycling efforts have failed to curb the intensifying plastic pollution. Unlike metallic objects, products with multiple plastic parts can be very difficult to sort by resin type using automated processes, meaning that the effort is usually labour-intensive and expensive. Where the technology exists, thermoplastics can be melted and re-used. However, in poorer countries, open-air burning of plastic wastes releases toxic, sometimes carcinogenic, fumes into the atmosphere. But, more than likely, the bulk of such wastes ends up in waterways and ocean basins.

In an age when we tend to believe that technology can solve most problems, unfortunately no commercially-viable substitute has been found for plastic. And, for all our sakes, it is imperative that the general public is educated about the misconception about the efficacy of bioplastics and bio-degradable plastic. Bioplastics are made from renewable materials like corn; however, bioplastics represent just about 0.2% of the total global production of non-renewable alternatives. Contrary to expectations, ‘bio-degradable’ in fact implies partial decomposition; therefore, tossing a bio-degradable product into the sea is almost as problematic for marine life as ordinary plastic. Significantly, the production of plastics that can degrade through exposure to sunlight, water, bacteria or special enzymes is limited, due to relatively high costs.

So, whither the future of plastics? Apparently, since we cannot wish plastics away, the most authoritative suggestion by experts is that we produce and use less of the materials. More specifically, they recommend a ban on single-use plastic products like shopping bags, plastic bottles, stirrers and straws. Since a re-use, and recycle, policy cannot be unilaterally enforced, some governments have imposed a tax on, for example, grocery bags to modulate consumers’ behaviour.

If Mr. Mcguire could have envisioned the unintended consequences of his advice to young Benjamin Braddock, would he perhaps have been more circumspectThe answer is bobbing on the waterfront.  


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