By Arnold Muthanga
Human evolution “inspired by need, scientific curiosity and serendipity” is partially defined by tools and materials used by man. In the wake of technological advancement, human civilization has seen gradual shifts from conventional stone and metal into extensive use of plastics. Vast petroleum deposits, render plastic products very affordable and are flexible to tailor into desired consumer characteristics. Plastics are lightweight and cheap, attributes that make them the ideal material for commercialization, finding ever soaring use in flexible and rigid packaging, construction products, medical consumables, electronics and automobile. Global plastics demand is surging, estimated at 263 million tons in 2016, with a colossal net worth approximation of $ 560 billion by revenue in 2024. It is definitely the ‘plastic age’.
Polyethene is by far the most used plastic with over 100 million metric tons used in 2018. Abbreviated as (PE), it is the major constituent material in containers, bottles, plastic films and plastic bags. PE will play a lead role of 35% revenue share by 2025 in the flourishing packaging industry. Global trajectory of a sharp increase in urbanization, world population, industrialization, and infrastructure, characteristic in emerging economies are the pull factors for the phenomenal growth in plastic sector. It is summer for plastic manufactures.
On the flip side of the coin, these materials have existential threat to life as we know it. Plastics degrade very slowly, meaning, they persist in the environment for several decades. Low density makes them buoyant, coupled with long durability, they travel long distances, finding paths into the ocean and rivers. Also, making them potential vectors for microbes and non-native species. Consequently, plastics weather into micro-sized particles that together with manufactured minute sized plastics in consumer products have found their way into the food chain. More so, plastic products have addictive’s that are released through photo oxidative, biological and mechanical degradation that can be carcinogenic and mutagenic. These accruing detrimental effects have resulted for clarion calls for sound plastic waste management. Birds are finally home to roost.
In response, the market pressure is building up on tighter environmental regulations and increased consumer expectations. Top minds in plastic industry are gearing up for a circular economy (recover-innovate-reuse) ditching linear approach of -single use, (take-make-dispose). Plastic sustainability has a mixture of demand, supply, regulatory and technological dimensions. As market leaders are investing in recycling alternatives such as eco bricks, eco-friendly alternatives such as biodegradable plastics, regulators are getting to the extremes of bans on single use plastics. In pursuit of a healthy, better and productive society, Kenya has put an effective ban on single use plastics days after a similar ban on plastic carrier bags.