The advantages and disadvantages of plastic

ECOLOGY / On the one hand, plastic replaces more polluting building materials. On the other, we have enormous amounts of plastic waste - 7 billion tonnes of plastic as of today.

Few of us will be able to leave behind monumental buildings or structures like a pyramid or the Eiffel Tower. What we can leave behind are small-scale buildings or constructions, and perhaps some of these will be discovered in the year 3023. It may be your child’s imaginative construction or building that is found, built with Lego.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Plymouth and published in the journal Environmental Pollution concluded that Lego can survive in the ocean for up to 1300 years! The company is fully aware of this and aims to the toy blocks from more sustainable materials than what is used today by 2030. They have considered using polythene from sugar beets, but this material is only partially biodegradable. Lego has undoubtedly produced something extremely durable, but even conventional plastic degrades slowly. In the ocean, it will take around 450 years for a significant portion of the existing plastic to break down. The degradation of a cigarette butt takes about ten years, a regular plastic bag around 20 years, and typical bottles around 450 years.

Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Nestlé have been the most prominent plastic polluters in the last five years. Being on top for five consecutive years doesn’t seem to be something they are ashamed of. Coca-Cola alone has its logo on almost as many items as Pepsi and Nestlé combined. According to a 2020 survey conducted by the NGO Tearfund, a Christian charity organisation that works with churches in more than 50 countries, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestlé, and Unilever were collectively responsible for half a million tons of plastic waste annually in six developing countries. Another study from 2017 published in ScienceAdvances (science.org) claimed that as much as 91 percent of all plastic ever produced has never been recycled or recovered.

Coca-Cola boasts that 20 percent of its portfolio consists of refillable bottles. However, this percentage is based on the volume. They produce 100 billion bottles per year. That’s 200,000 bottles per minute – 3,333 bottles per second! Coca-Cola alone contributes 80 billion bottles «missing» from the recycling process each year.

Nestlé has indeed expressed clearer goals, aiming to make all packaging recyclable or reusable. However, the problem may lie in the fact that even though it can be done, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is being done. To be more specific: We know it’s not happening. Recycling itself is complex and costly, and reusing plastic is much more expensive than using «virgin plastic», meaning it’s cheaper to produce new plastic than to recycle. The economic viability of recycling has fluctuated with the extreme increase in energy prices, and in recent times, several recycling facilities have closed. It’s not exactly positive news when less than ten percent of all produced plastic is recycled.

The degradation of a cigarette butt takes about ten years, a regular plastic bag around 20 years, and typical bottles around 450 years.

Plastic Asphalt

Plastic asphalt is climate-dependent and is best suited for warmer conditions. It can improve water resistance, skid resistance and have a longer lifespan than conventional asphalt – even triple the lifespan. And it has another significant advantage in that it can utilise non-recyclable plastic.

There are an enormous number of roads on our planet, estimated to be over 65 million kilometres. That’s equivalent to 1600 – 1700 times around the equator. Many of these kilometres are not paved, but perhaps plastic asphalt can enable more people worldwide to have drivable roads. Plastic asphalt has already been tested in several countries, such as Canada, the Netherlands, England, Italy, the USA, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and India. And it is said that India was the first to start using it in 2001. According to a popular story, plastic asphalt emerged when local people repaired road potholes. They wrapped plastic bags around asphalt residue, rocks, and gravel, filled the holes with it, and set it on fire. The plastic melted and filled the holes. Today, up to eight percent plastic can be blended into asphalt, a significant improvement in just a few years.

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Building Material

In the future, much more plastic will be used in building materials. Kenya is among the countries struggling with waste.

According to the UN Human Settlements Program, 3,207 tons of waste are generated daily in Greater Nairobi. Twenty percent of this is plastic. Dandora was once the city’s landfill. It covered an area equivalent to 22 football fields and was one of the largest unregulated landfills in Africa. Kenyan Nzambi Matee came up with the idea of reusing some of the plastic waste for something people needed, namely houses. In 2020, she was honoured as a Young Champion of the Earth by the UN Environment Program. Since 2018, she has produced plastic building bricks that are stronger and cheaper than traditional bricks or stones. Her small company produces 2,000 building bricks per day. These bricks are 35 percent more durable than equivalent conventional bricks and have a melting point of 350°C, approved as a building material in Kenya.

In Colombia, Conceptos Plásticos has been producing building blocks for house construction since 2017. That year, they won a bid from the Norwegian Refugee Council and built houses for 42 homeless families in 28 days while recycling 200 tons of plastic. They have fifteen employees. Their building blocks weigh approximately the same as traditional brick, around three kilograms. They are produced under pressure, have seismic qualities earthquake resistance, and are approved and adapted for Colombia, where earthquakes are common.

At the same time, sand is scarce. At least sand for use in mortar and concrete. Cement production, which is also used in mortar and concrete, is highly polluting and contributes to between four and eight percent of today’s total CO2 emissions. Much of our building material in the near future will still be based on concrete. Sand used in both mortar and concrete is often sourced from riverbeds. Desert sand and beach sand are not suitable for construction. There are bans on extracting more sand from riverbeds in several parts of the world. Here, sand consumption can be reduced by 10 percent, and sand can be replaced with plastic, which maintains the same strength and lifespan. At the same time, it also makes the mortar or concrete lighter. The use of cement can also be reduced, according to a comprehensive study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2017. By irradiating the plastic particles with gamma rays and incorporating fly ash, the mortar became up to 15 times stronger. The reduction in sand and cement consumption in mortar and concrete reduces CO2 emissions and increases plastic reuse.

The reduction in sand and cement consumption in mortar and concrete reduces CO2 emissions and increases plastic reuse.

Oil Industry

There are many simple machines for grinding plastic for recycling. However, the biggest problem is that we continue to produce enormous amounts of new plastic. This is partly because the transition is slow and partly because the oil industry earns billions from it and spends millions on lobbying.

While changing personal habits may help to some extent, the most significant transformation must occur at the industry and national level to have a real impact. Plastic is a massive problem worldwide, even if it is not particularly visible in Norway. Much of the plastic we use today will remain in 400 years. We produce so much plastic that plastic waste will eventually become a visible problem in our part of the world as well. China, which was previously one of the largest recipients of plastic waste, banned the import of plastic from January 1, 2018.

In Thailand, a three-stage ban has been introduced since 2023. By 2025, there will be a complete halt to the import of plastic waste. Worldwide, we have currently produced 7 billion tons of plastic. In 1950, we produced approximately 2 million tons; in 2015, it was 322 million tons. The production is increasing, and now we produce 380 million tons per year, of which about half is used for single-use products. Only about ten percent is recycled and reused, often only between one and three times, so the amount of plastic grows daily. Perhaps it would be reasonable to at least partially pass on the cost of cleanup to those who have profited immensely from producing and selling it, namely the oil industry?


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