The Future of Plastics

Looking for an understatement of the day? Here’s one for you: Plastic is everywhere.

Just consider these statistics to get some context on the widespread use of this environmentally harmful material:

  • According to market research and consulting company Grand View Research, the worldwide plastic market was valued at a whopping $568.9 billion in 2019, and has an expected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.2 percent over the next seven years.
  • By 2015, the cumulative global production of plastic reached 7.8 billion tons. That’s more than enough for every person alive today to have more than one ton of the stuff for themselves. 
  • Annually, the world produces about 300 million tons of plastic or more per year. And more than 8 million tons of it is dumped into the ocean.
  • According to a 2019 study funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature and conducted at the University of Newcastle, Australia, the typical person eats, inhales, and/or drinks about 2,000 microscopic pieces of plastic every week. This is roughly equal (by weight) to one credit card. 

Like many others, you might feel a bit wary about ingesting the equivalent of 12 credit cards per year. You may also feel concerned about how else all this plastic is affecting the planet. But what can we do about it? 

It’s time to look at what’s being done and will be done to tackle our planet’s plastic problem.

The Future of Plastics: The Changes Here and On Their Way

The problem with plastics, of course, is that the stuff can leech harmful chemicals into the water, soil, and air and destroy human, plant, and animal life. Wild animals can also become injured by plastics, whether by mistaking it for food or by getting parts of their bodies caught in it. 

Plastic—which is manufactured with materials like cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt, and crude oil in a chemical process called polymerization—also takes hundreds to thousands of years to breakdown. This means it’s a lot more troublesome to get rid of compared to say, an unpleasant houseguest who’s extended their invite. 

And while the U.S. Energy Information Administration claims that crude oil is not a major raw material used in plastics production, Reuters projects that the demand for plastic will necessitate the use of 18 million barrels of oil per day by 2050, accounting for nearly half of the global oil growth demand by that time.

If this doesn’t sound sustainable to you, you’re not the only one. Here are a few main shifts that have already happened or are on their way in terms of cutting back on plastics and advancing the biodegradable movement:

Pledges From Major Companies to Cut Back on Plastics

Companies like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Walmart have been shaking up their supply chains to cut down or eliminate single-use plastics and/or make the switch to recyclable material. 

Private, Local, and State-Level Legislations Prohibiting Single Use Plastic

As of now, eight U.S. states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont—currently ban the use of single-use plastic bags in establishments like drug stores and grocery stores. Plastic bag bans are also in effect or in the near future in places like Montreal, Prince Edward Island, and Vancouver, Canada.

And many cities around the world, including Oakland, CA and Seattle, WA, have banned the use of single-use plastic utensils and straws. Many private restaurants are following suit. 

Different Manufacturing Trends for Plastic

If you can’t beat ’em…change ’em? According to S&P Global, instead of or at least in addition to eliminating plastics, many companies are currently investigating novel ways to recycle their plastic materials or implement changes that will make recycling easier, such as using clear or single-polymer plastic only.

Investment Opportunities Rise for the Biodegradable Packaging Market

Savvy investors take note. There’s no doubt that plastics will likely still be around in the near future. If anything, market analysis suggests the demand for plastics is set to rise over the coming years, ironically enough.

But according to an industry forecast from Research and Markets, the CAGR of biodegradable packing is expected to grow by nearly 15 percent between 2015 and 2025, achieving a projected worth of $19.1 billion by 2025.

In other words, biodegradable packaging clearly has a long way to go before reaching the same level of worth, dollar for dollar, as the beleaguered plastics industry. But the growth potential of the biodegradable movement is significant—about 80 percent faster, based on their respective CAGRs.

So, expect to see more biodegradable or other-than-plastic options in a variety of areas of your home and shopping life, including pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, personal and home care items. Heck, even the fashion industry has seen an uptick in interest in the sustainability movement. According to the world’s leading global fashion search platform Lyst, “sustainability” was one of the most frequently searched keywords in 2019, up by 75 percent since the year prior. 

(Interestingly, two other commonly searched topics on Lyst last year were “resale” and “rental.” While sustainability isn’t the only reason a person would want to buy or rent secondhand clothing, it certainly is a plausible motivator, especially considering how many celebrities and fashion icons are championing the sustainable fashion movement.)

11 Plastic Alternatives Available Today for the Sustainability Focused Consumer

What kinds of eco-friendly, biodegradable packing material is already available to the conscious consumer now? Check out some of these surprising and innovative biodegradable products cited by Interesting Engineering

  1. Water bottles
  2. Sanitary pads
  3. Cell phone cases and cell phone parts
  4. To-go coffee cups and food containers
  5. Mineral-based sunscreens
  6. Diapers
  7. Trash bags
  8. Clothing
  9. Six-pack beverage can rings
  10. Edible straws and cutlery
  11. Urns

Of course, there’s a certain wisdom in the call to not reinvent the wheel. That is to say, plenty of products—including food and beverage containers and even feminine hygiene products—are made with material that offers a reusable and sustainability friendly alternatives to plastics. This includes natural materials such as steel, glass, wood, hemp, cotton, bamboo, and silicone. 

Getting people to change their minds (and their habits) about plastic may be tough. And as noted by Politico, a lot of these plastics manufacturers are backed by organizations like the Plastic Industry Association which spend at least a few hundred thousands of dollars each year lobbying to the federal government for their cause. 

The Good News

While the future of plastics isn’t necessarily doomsday for the plastic industry, enough signs certainly indicate that change is coming. And most experts agree that cutting back plastic use in the world is a good investment—and it really may start at home. In addition to shopping around for biodegradable products and items made with sustainable material other than plastic, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers some simple, no-nonsense ways to change your family’s proclivity for plastic. This includes using cloth bags at the store, dining in instead of taking out (or cooking at home), and bringing your own reusable cup to your favorite cafe. 

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