Plastics and the Inevitable Environmental Dilemma

Materials of public utility for some, pollutants to be absolutely banned for others. This is how the current, highly contrasting, perception of our society towards plastic materials could be summarized. With the collective awakening to climate change and ecosystem pollution, many voices have called for the prohibition of plastics in our daily lives. But is this really a good option? Could banning plastics lead to even more harmful environmental effects? What are the claimed improvement options that the plastics industry could consider? Let’s decipher the « plastic dilemma » together, or how to reconcile essential benefits with the need to reduce the environmental impacts of the sector.

Plastics have transformed our modern societies. They have expanded the realm of possibilities in mobility, construction, leisure, energy, and healthcare. They have enhanced our comfort and addressed a wide range of needs, from the most superficial to the most essential. However, year after year, poorly managed plastics have accumulated in the environment as persistent waste, leading to an ecological catastrophe.

It is therefore understandable that the public harbors a negative emotional response at the mention of the word « plastic. » Who hasn’t been frustrated by seeing discarded plastic waste during a walk in nature? Who hasn’t been moved by the sight of seals wandering on beaches strewn with plastic debris or turtles swimming in oceans amidst plastic bags? Who hasn’t worried about the toxic effects of tiny plastic fragments found in our soils, waters, and even the air we breathe? These legitimate concerns are supported by scientists who unequivocally demonstrate the devastating effects of plastic waste on ecosystems. Yet, plastic pollution is only part of the problem. Most plastics today are produced from fossil resources and non-renewable energy sources. Every stage of the plastic lifecycle—from fossil carbon extraction to production and eventual recycling—emits greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.

Thus, it seems reasonable to believe that banning plastics from our daily lives or completely prohibiting their industrial production would be strong actions to mitigate these major environmental threats. It makes sense to think that eliminating plastic straws from our drinks or systematically replacing plastic with paper, glass, or cotton would save our planet. However, while these proposals, often driven by instinctive reactions to the visible effects of plastics, are commendable, they prove less convincing in the face of scientific data revealing a much more nuanced and complex reality.

Numerous studies, supported by life cycle analyses, show that substituting plastic with materials deemed more traditional is sometimes misguided. For instance, paper supermarket bags have a carbon footprint almost 80% higher than their plastic counterparts. Similarly, replacing plastic bottles with glass or metal alternatives results in 15 to 50% higher carbon dioxide emissions. Swapping plastic cutlery for wooden utensils, synthetic fibers in our interior textiles for wool, or plastic pipes in our homes for metal ones are equally misleading decisions. Studies are clear: a material does not necessarily become more sustainable just because it appears more natural.

So, what should we do? Adopting sobriety in our use of plastics and assessing each situation individually are two priority options. Making decisions at the global level, not just on a regional or small territorial scale, is also preferred. Conversely, deciding to systematically eliminate plastics without discernment may indicate a tendency to generalize, which would overlook the essential roles these materials play in our contemporary society. This overly simplistic approach risks underestimating opportunities for innovation to make plastic use more environmentally friendly and ignoring areas where viable alternatives remain limited.

To be convinced, consider the healthcare sector. What could we replace the plastic materials used in surgical masks, gloves, syringes, transfusion bags, and sutures with? What alternatives do we have for making contact lenses, dental implants, or even heart valves? Plastics are essential in medicine because they can be sterile, biocompatible, bioresorbable, or antibacterial. They are so efficient, sophisticated, and innovative, resulting from continuous research efforts, that they can now repair failing organs, damaged tissues, broken bones, and protect burned skin.

What about the water and renewable energy sectors? Thanks to their affordability and unique performance, including excellent corrosion resistance, plastics play a crucial role in water treatment and distribution, as well as in agricultural irrigation. They enable the design of anti-evaporation covers, pipes, tanks, and even seawater desalination membranes, contributing to access to drinking water in arid regions. Because they are robust and safe, insulating or conducting electricity or heat, plastics are also indispensable in the energy sector. They are components of photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, electrolyzers for green hydrogen production, electricity transmission cables, heat pumps, and building insulation.

We could thus marvel at the power plastics have had in shaping our modern world. We could be equally convinced that these materials will have a place in our strategies for mitigating or adapting to the effects of climate change. But we remain deeply concerned about the deleterious effects on the environment that plastics have caused. From these two contrasting aspects arises a significant dilemma: should we continue to use plastics for their undeniable benefits, at the risk of perpetuating their harmful environmental impacts, or should we forego their advantages to protect our planet?

Many are convinced that we must say goodbye to plastics. Numerous voices call for their removal from food and beverage packaging, as well as from agriculture, construction, and the manufacture of toys, cars, furniture, and textiles. However, we will not be able to abandon these materials in the near future. Indeed, on one hand, there is a lack of reliable alternatives, and on the other, most substitutes sometimes prove even more problematic. Who could imagine that by eliminating plastics from our food packaging, food waste would increase to the point of exceeding the greenhouse gas emissions of the plastic value chain? Who would think that removing plastic from cars and replacing it with steel would make vehicles less safe, consume more, and further disrupt air quality?

Nonetheless, let’s remain clear-headed. Starting now, sobriety in our use of plastics must become the norm. It is crucial to refuse unnecessary over-packaging, whether justified by aesthetic or commercial reasons. We must also eliminate superfluous uses, materials that degrade faster than they are used, and single-use plastics.

The plastic dilemma is therefore complex to address as it blends facts and emotions, scientific data, and personal convictions. Solving this dilemma will necessarily involve education and awareness—crucial when the public often relies on social media for information about plastics. Solving this societal problem will also require a profound paradigm shift and a technical overhaul of the entire plastic lifecycle. To tackle this significant challenge and continue to meet our essential needs without compromising the quality of ecosystems, it will be necessary to involve all societal actors, from citizens to researchers, including industrial and socio-political stakeholders.

Betting on the recycling of end-of-life plastic waste could be a promising path for sustainable management of these materials. Recycling could not only handle end-of-life plastics but also reintegrate the carbon they contain into subsequent production cycles. Many public actors fully support this approach, although scientists already highlight its limitations. Currently, recycling is effective only for a few types of plastics, often the simplest ones. Moreover, it consumes a lot of energy, degrades the quality of the plastic, and results in material losses. Therefore, recycling is not, at least for now, a miracle solution. This is partly because the plastics we have used for decades were never designed to be recycled.

Going further, it would be strategic to design plastics and finished products with better recyclability, disassembly, or spontaneous and harmless degradation in the natural environment. This approach should be more broadly supported financially to allow researchers to develop new, more durable yet equally efficient materials. Inspired by nature, notably plants, algae, or insects, researchers can design bio-inspired and potentially biodegradable materials. They can also synthesize new, less harmful materials, less prone to generating microplastics, and incorporating more responsible additives. Future plastics could also discover new roles beyond those they have served for decades. They could become active and intelligent, better protecting our food and indicating contamination by bacteria or viruses. They could transform into energy storage elements for renewable energy on the grid. In construction, they could become components of solar windows that generate electricity from sunlight. They would also be key materials for 3D printing to reconstruct diseased organs.

While research often focuses on the use and end-of-life management phases of plastics, considered the most problematic for the environment and human health, it is important not to forget that the production phase remains the most critical, with significant environmental, health, and socio-economic impacts. Global plastic production, already close to 400 million tons per year, could exceed one billion tons by 2050. If no action is taken, greenhouse gas emissions from the sector will represent more than 15% of the global carbon budget by 2050. Over 90% of greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastics, primarily carbon dioxide and methane, come from the extraction of fossil raw materials (oil, coal, and gas) and production processes. It is also important to mention that the increase in greenhouse gas emissions recorded over the past decade and projected for 2050 also results from the commissioning of large production sites in countries heavily dependent on coal, including China.

Adopting aggressive carbon dioxide emission capture methods at production sites could significantly reduce these gaseous emissions. Integrating more renewable energy into production phases and planning greener syntheses under milder conditions could also help mitigate the problem. By applying these more virtuous production strategies, betting on innovative recycling options, including chemical recycling, and managing demand, it would be possible to maintain sector emissions in 2050 at a level comparable to what we know today. Furthermore, by incorporating biomass and carbon from recycling into circular approaches, emissions could be further reduced, achieving an absolute decrease from current levels.

Scientists today affirm that solving the plastic crisis will not involve a total ban on these materials, as they remain indispensable in certain sectors where they ensure safety and efficiency. However, it is imperative to emphasize greening their production, a dimension long neglected in favor of end-of-life management. In other words, it is crucial to intervene with the same determination at every stage of the value chain, including prioritizing applications and raising awareness. Neglecting this approach would risk undermining our industries, but also, paradoxically, our environment itself.

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