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I was at the Asian grocers the other day, ruefully watching the check out chick placing one perhaps two plastic vacuum sealed items into plastic bags of varying sizes. The various sized bags were then placed in to a plastic bag for further convenience. That’s at least three sheaths of plastic to get through in order to get to the dumplings. I then stopped at the bottle shop where 2 plastic bags, one inside the other, are courteously offered when two bottles of wine are purchased. The same goes for a six pack of beer although the beers packaging provides a grip or handle for transporting.

I know the scourge of plastic is not a hot topic right now, especially when one works in renewable energy. So much good stuff is going down in our game, it’s pretty easy to spring out of bed each day, high five the cat, remain upbeat and look to the positive. But after my latest trip to the markets I got to thinking again about plastic – the 20th Century’s greatest gift to the slow toxic strangulation of planet Earth and realised how little I knew about it. How is it made? What is it made from? Why doesn’t it decompose? Will we ever be free from it or is it far too useful? Personally, I can’t imagine a kitchen without cling film.

I thought I would investigate a little further.

If any readers have or have had ‘creative’ 10 year old kids, it’s likely they’ve been through the slime making phase. Toothpaste, laundry liquid, bicarb soda (and a drop or two of food colouring) mixed together in certain quantities produce fabulously slimy…slime. This slime can be prodded and pushed into various shapes, forced into upturned lego bricks – you name it.

Plastic is the same principle – mix a bunch of things together to get the base goo, add a little bit of other things to have the goo do what is wanted, heat, pour into moulds, cool, use. There are dozens of different plastics, all with their own attributes, characteristics, functions and varying degrees of decomposition.

The problems begin with what goes into the goo. The first fully synthetic thermoset (hard plastic) created was Bakelite in the early 1900’s. After World War 1, alongside advances in chemical technology, the plastics industry boomed. It was found, the most effective, cost efficient and most readily available components for-to-make-da-goo were…petro chemicals, derivatives of crude oil. The things that are added to the goo to make the end product hard, soft, pliable, rigid, clear, coloured etc are called, variously, stabilizers, fillers, plasticizers, colourants, reinforcing agents and the like. A plastics stubborn refusal to degrade is in most cases attributed to these additives, not necessarily the goo. In many cases the additives are toxic and/or carcinogenic both to humans and other wildlife BUT bloody cheap to produce, hence the dilemma.

Plastic does not have to be made from petrol. It can be made from natural stuff too, like cellulose and starch but its uses are limited as the really nasty bits in the additives run counter to the reasons for creating a bio-plastic in the first place. AND it’s not as cheap, hence the dilemma. In fact, to demonstrate how far east is from west, in 2015, the bio-plastic industry produced globally around 327,000 tonnes of ‘happy wrap’. The petro based industry, over 150 million tonnes. When you consider how light a piece of plastic can be, the mind wobbles at just how many pieces that could possibly be.

Another few head spinning stats:

  • Using plastic drink bottles rather than glass, reduces transportation costs by 52%, because of the lighter weight of the container
  • Since the 1950’s it’s estimated we’ve produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic and thrown away 6.3 billion.
  • Encouragingly, several species of bacteria and even fungi have been found to aid in plastic degradation by, I believe, eating it
  • Packaging is the largest category for plastic followed closely by building materials. Developed countries consume 30% of plastic via packaging, developing countries up to 42%.

Without question, the invention and subsequent evolution of plastic and its applications is one of humanities greatest achievements – the stuff is miraculous. From fishing line to hip replacements, water buckets to aerospace components, the stuff is ubiquitous. And always will be. There’s no way humans are going to turn their back on plastic. Unless something better comes along and I’ve heard nothing yet… but I don’t get out very often.

Working in renewable energy is, like Zoolander, “So hot right now”. As I have always said – saving the world a roof a time. But transitioning the Australian energy market away from fossil to renewable is really only a tiny piece of a much larger puzzle. It’s staggering to think just how much brilliant stuff we’ve done over the last century or so but just as staggering to pan back and consider the by-products of that progress.

The 21st century has started the right way, we are actively working toward correcting the environmental imbalance and will, glass half full, fix everything. I reckon we will – it may take time but I believe we’ll collectively get there. And once we are there, I’ll clink fully organic, replenishable, recyclable glasses with you. Salute.

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