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Plastics In Everyday Lives

WHAT ARE PLASTICS?

Plastics were first invented in 1860 and are generally transformed from hydrocarbons (fossil fuels) – crude oil, natural gas, and coal - to produce long chain molecules called polymers. These polymers can be made into granules, powders, and liquids and are the base materials for plastic products. Since the 1960's the use of plastics has become very widespread and their use in packages and containers has risen enormously.

Plastic resins are used in several ways, including extrusion, injection moulding, blow moulding, and rotational moulding, and involve heat and/or pressure to re-form the resin into useful products.

Today, plastic production worldwide exceeds 80 million tonnes per year. 
(Ref. www.visyrecycling.com.au).

Plastics can be thought of as congealed energy, because they not only are derived from fossil energy but they also require a fossil energy in their manufacture.

In Australia, the main energy source for most plastics production is natural gas (Ref. www.kesab.asn.au).


SOME PLASTICS FACTS

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Australians are the second highest producers of waste, per person, in the world. An average of more than 690 kilograms of waste per person goes to landfill each year (the United States is the highest waste producer)
(Ref. 
www.cleanup.org.au/au/LivingGreener/plastic-bag-facts.html).

button cancelEvery year, Australians consume around 1.5 million tonnes of plastic products of which about 520,000 tonnes was used in packaging in 2011-12.

button cancel302,000 tonnes of plastics (about 20% of consumption) were recycled in 2011-12 (Ref. 2011-12 National Plastics Recycling Survey). 

button cancel          Of the remaining 1.2 million tonnes approximately of plastics used annually, there is no information on what quantity finally ends up in the environment, in landfills and in the oceans, each year.

button cancelIn 2011-12, 166,000 tonnes of waste plastic was exported for reprocessing.
Why shouldn't this be reprocessed in Australia?

button cancelIt is estimated that it takes around 700 years for some plastics to begin to decompose in a landfill. Some plastics are estimated to last indefinitely.


The following table has been taken from the 
2011-12 National Plastics Recycling Survey for Australia.


Source : Plastics and Chemical Industries Association, 2011-12 National Plastics Recycling Survey

The table illustrates that there is an increasing general trend for recycling of plastics. 


WHY AREN'T ALL PLASTICS BEING DIVERTED FROM LANDFILLS?

Consider this. According to the 2011-12 National Plastics Recycling Survey, about 520,000 tonnes of plastic was used in packaging. 215,000 tonnes was recycled. Packaging has a short life cycle, therefore it is reasonable to assume that a large proportion of the 305,000 tonnes not recycled would end up in the environment or in landfills.

It seems the problem comes down to COST! But what cost to the environment? What cost to groundwater systems? What cost to your health? What cost to the ocean environment and all its creatures?

PLASTICS are a part of our everyday lives, but most that come into the household have a once-off use. Most packaging used for the purchase of consumer goods and in the building industry is destined for landfill. 

This 305,000 tonnes or so represents a huge opportunity, but before we get to that, let's look at what happens in the oceans of the world.


THE GREAT PLASTICS GARBAGE TRAP

Wikipedia has a very illuminating story on plastics in the oceans of the world.

Have a look at this YouTube video from a few years ago.


The same insurmountable problem that occurs in the oceans of the world also happens on land. 

Recall that about 20% of plastics are recycled in Australia. Other than the plastics that are still in use, what happens to the remainder each year? Most likely they are dumped and buried in landfills.

THIS IS AN ACCUMULATING PROBLEM.

Plastics can be highly toxic in landfills, highly toxic to groundwater systems, and a killer of marine life. That is why greater measures need to be introduced to limit this pollution. 

So, what can be done?

Let's see in RECOVERY AND RE-USE OF PLASTICS

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