Plastic: the good, the bad and the ugly
On Saturday 14 July, Dagblad de Limburger published a column by Martin Paul about the negative impact plastic has on our health and the role that the Aachen-Maastricht Institute for Biobased Materials (AMIBM) plays to counter this.
When I went to the waste and recycling centre last Saturday, the plastic container was, as always, overflowing. Once again, I realised[C2] how much plastic we use in our daily lives. Just look at the number of products packed in plastic that are usually in your grocery cart. Approximately 450 million tons of plastic are used per year in the Netherlands as packaging; per person we use 25 to 30 kg per year.
Plastic is cheap, hygienic, water-resistant and easy and quick to use, but there are also disadvantages. Firstly, plastic is made from polymers from the petrochemical industry, thus fossil materials.
It is estimated that we use 1.6 million barrels of oil annually for the production of plastic water bottles. And that plastic is practically nondegradable. So, what do you do with this waste? Because it’s petroleum-based, it increases carbon emissions and therefore the carbon footprint when you burn it with other waste. It has also been shown that plastic is not a ‘dead’ substance but leaves some of its component parts in the environment. One of those components is bisphenol A (BPA), which is used in the production of many polymers. The problem with BPA is that it causes hormonal reactions similar to oestrogen[C1] . Since BPA is used in the production of soda cans and even baby bottles, a lot of research is done into its possible effects on the body. Because you don’t want to expose your baby to oestrogen-like hormones, right? In the EU, BPA can no longer be used in the production of baby bottles (and if you buy a bottle outside of it, pay attention to the ‘BPA-free’ label).
Research into the effects of BPA is ongoing, and rightly so. For example, recent studies show that BPA (used in plastic softeners) affects dental enamel, causing teeth to become brittle and break faster. It appears that ten to thirty per cent of German children suffer from this so-called Kalkzähne (chalky teeth) syndrome.
But I haven’t yet mentioned the biggest problem—the dumping of plastic waste in the ocean. Because it takes hundreds of years for plastic to break down, the amount of plastic in the sea is only increasing. More than 10 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year and if this continues, it is expected that it will contain more plastic than fish by 2050. What the terrible consequences of this will be, you can see extensively on YouTube.
It’s clear in any case that we have to do something about this. The oceans must be cleaned regardless, and we as consumers must become much more aware of the amount of plastic we use.
Fortunately, the Dutch policy of waste separation and recycling is having a positive impact, because the best way to deal with plastic is to recycle and reuse it.
At universities and in the business community, researchers are also working to make plastic more degradable and more sustainable. Much of this research takes place at the Chemelot Campus, for example at the Aachen Maastricht Institute for Biobased Materials (AMIBM), which is led by researchers from RWTH Aachen and Maastricht University. Here, organic materials are developed to produce polymers with which strong as well as degradable plastic products can be made. There is hope that the traditional plastic pipeline can be replaced by more sustainable products.
But ultimately there is also an important task for us, the consumers, in reducing plastic waste. By using as little plastic as possible, you can make the difference. Think about that during your next visit to the supermarket.