Can we ever replace plastic?

Plastic has become a staple of modern life.
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Our lives are molded, packaged and sealed in plastic dependency. Look around you at your computers, phones, water bottles and credit cards. Plastic components pepper everything from our automobiles to our surgical implants. Our children play with plastic toys while we rip the cellophane wrappers off our prepackaged dinners.

The downsides to plastic are certainly no secret. For starters, it's often a nonbiodegradable, petroleum-derived product. Factor in toxins, wildlife endangerment and difficult recycling, and the plastic industry has quite a public relations problem on its hands. But that's only half the story.


As much as the sight of plastic-littered landscapes and debris-strewn highways depress us, plastic is still a highly attractive material. Plastic manufacturing only takes up 5 percent of the world's oil supplies and, in doing so, provides us with an exhaustive supply of material [source: Kahn]. The ubiquitous substance allows for superior food storage and lighter packaging materials for cheaper transportation. Plastic infiltrates every aspect of our lives for good reason.

So what's a plastic-addicted civilization to do? A return to reliance on aluminum and glass may seem attractive, but these materials aren't as cheap, versatile or durable as plastic. Likewise, paper and cardboard also present problems. Grocery store paper bags, for instance signify the end of a long supply chain that typically entails clear-cutting, motorized log removal, motorized processing, chemical treatment and product transport.

Plastics first hit the scene in the second half of the 19th century and eventually became a top manufacturing material. What will the next great human manufacturing material be? Interestingly enough, the answer is more plastic. Combustible, nonpetroleum plastics will likely become more and more common as researchers continue to find ways of creating polymers from such organic sources as corn, orange peels, bamboo, papermaking byproducts and hemp.

While bioplastics will eventually provide a clean, recyclable, nontoxic alternative, energy and environmental analyst Christopher Flavin, author of "The Future of Synthetic Materials" insists that oil-based plastics aren't going anywhere just yet. He predicts that the next 20 years will see bioplastics absorb a mere 5 percent of the global plastic market [source: Kahn].

In the meantime, however, people around the globe can stand to greatly decrease their dependence on plastic -- especially disposable plastics that wind up glutting our landfills, littering our landscape and harming wildlife.

According to 2007 estimates, most plastic bags are only used an average of 12 minutes and then discarded. Consider that the world uses a staggering 1 million bags a minute and you begin to see how big the problem is [source: Batty]. Various cities and even whole countries have taken steps to cut down or eliminate plastic bag usage, but even that can't turn back the clock. As each bag takes centuries to break down, the problem will long outlive the groceries they once held -- as well as the humans who filled them.

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  • Batty, David. "London councils push for plastic bag ban." The Guardian. July 13, 2007. (July 15, 2010)
  • Dunn, Collin. "Paper Bags or Plastic Bags? Everything You Need to Know." July 9, 2008. (July 15, 2010)
  • Kahn, Jennifer. "Plastic. Fantastic?" Mother Jones. May 2009. (July 15, 2010)