Today there is a huge range of plastic materials used in our products, each one with its own properties and characteristics that make it suitable for a particular purpose. We have used plastic in almost every conceivable place; cars, buildings, medical products, toys, electronics, furniture and probably most noticeably, in packaging. Many things that we take for granted would be difficult or even impossible to do if it weren’t for these materials.
Plastics are typically derived from petrochemicals such as oil and natural gas (although renewable sources also exist) and once processed and manufactured into a final product can last for a very long time. For example a plastic drinks bottle may take several hundred years to biodegrade completely. On the one hand, this can be a favourable characteristic in a product that needs to be durable. But on the other, once the product has come to the end of its service life and becomes waste, the question arises about what should be done with such long-lasting materials.
Options typically include landfill, incineration or recycling. Putting waste in landfill sites is economical but issues such as air and groundwater pollution as well as finding suitable places to site them make them undesirable. Incineration has the advantage of being able to reclaim a certain amount of energy from the waste, however pollution and gas emissions are obviously a major concern.
Most plastics are capable of being recycled. However, in reality many items that could have been recycled don’t find their way into the recycling stream. There are several reasons for this, from consumers not sorting their waste correctly to start with, to how available recycling technology is in a particular area and difficulties with sorting and processing different types of plastic or object once at the recycling plant. Situations exist where the county where you live may process a certain type of plastic waste, but over the border in the next county they might not have the infrastructure to handle it.
If plastic waste isn’t managed at all, it ends up discarded in the natural environment, most worryingly in the oceans where it can cause great harm to marine life. Circular currents create large floating collections of waste out at sea, where they break up into smaller pieces as a result of battering by waves and exposure to salt and UV rays. Sea creatures and birds either eat them, not being able to tell the difference between the waste and their normal food, or become entangled in larger pieces such as bags or infamous six-pack can rings. Plastic pieces and particles ingested by fish is of particular concern as it then starts to accumulate in the food chain.
A new awareness among the public has arisen out of recent publicity about the situation and action is being demanded to deal with it. Designers and manufacturers can play a key part in creating solutions to this problem. From ways to clean up the existing waste, to guiding a path to more careful, sober use of plastics and making the task of recycling and reusing materials more effective, as well as using alternatives to plastic that have less environmental impact.
If you've got an idea you want to take to market, we will assist you through your journey. We will work with you closely and can advise you on which materials work best for your design project and the environment.
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