HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Plastic, once hailed as a modern-day wonder, has faced increasing scrutiny over its impact on the environment.
An activist for Friends of the Earth protests in Hong Kong last year against plastic bags.
One of the most useful, durable and ubiquitous materials known to man, it permeates every sphere of human life. It protects and stores our food; it transports our goods; we brush our teeth with it; we can find it in our refrigerators, cars, computers and mobile phones; we can thank it for our shower curtains, our plumbing and the flooring we walk on.
In short, it's everywhere, sustaining our way of life to the extent that we struggle to imagine life without it.
We now consume around 100 million tons of plastic annually, compared to five million tons in the 1950s when American housewives were just discovering the wonders of Tupperware. To put that into perspective, one ton of plastic represents around 20,000 two-liter bottles of water or 120,000 carrier bags, according to the British Web site Waste Online.
The estimates of how many plastic bags used annually vary wildly from 500 billion to anywhere up to 1 trillion. Even taking the more conservative estimate of 500 billion still roughly translates as 1 million every minute, according to Reusablebags.com. As for plastic bottles, Earth Policy Institute estimates that in 2004 the global consumption of bottled water alone was 154 billion liters.
According to Fast Company, in any given week in the United States, 1 billion bottles of water are being moved around the country, with Americans consuming 50 billion bottles each year. Of that, a whopping 38 billion of them are being sent to landfills, while on a daily basis 60 million just get chucked away.
Growing number of critics
These numbers have only fueled the anti-plastic movement; particularly as environmentalists argue that we can easily live without them (recent debate over bottled water has brought up the fact that around 40 percent of bottled water in the United States begins as simple tap water, according to Earth-Policy.org).
According to Greenpeace, more than 1 million birds and 100,000 marine mammals are estimated to perish each year by either eating or becoming trapped in plastic waste.
And then there is the human health issue. An increasing number of reports are now crying foul play over Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in the manufacture of plastic containers such as water bottles, baby bottles, microwave dishes and food containers. One recent study published in the journal "Reproductive Toxicology" has now found a link between BPA and female reproductive disorders such as endometriosis, cystic ovaries, fibroids and cancers.
And some studies into Polyethylene Terephthalate, or PET, which is in water bottles, plastic bags and food containers, has found that after repeated use it may release a compound --di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate- that is a suspected human carcinogen.
Industries stress benefit of plastics
The plastics industry, however, stresses the benefits of the product.
According to PlasticsResource.com, an educational Web site run by the American Chemistry Council, people have benefited from plastics. Using recycled plastic as a replacement for say, wood, can have a positive impact on the environment, it argues, as fewer trees get felled to make products such as garden furniture, which it says could be better served by the more durable and lower maintenance plastic.
The organization also points out that by replacing plastic with different kinds of material, we could in fact be creating more environmental problems for ourselves. For instance, it says, it takes 30 percent less energy to make foam polystyrene containers than paperboard containers.
Without plastics, the group says, an extra 400 percent more material by weight and 200 percent more by volume would be needed to meet existing packaging needs.
It also points out that transportation requirements would increase substantially if plastic bags were replaced by paper grocery bags: For every seven trucks needed to deliver paper grocery bags to the store - only one truck is needed to carry the same number of plastic bags" the site says.
Nations consider plastics policies
About 90 percent of plastic bottles end their lives in landfills, according to Treehugger.com. Even biodegradable waste can be potentially hazardous in a landfill environment. Many environmentalists worry about one of the assets of plastic -- its durability. No one really knows how long it takes to break down, because plastic simply hasn't been around long enough. Such is the uncertainty that environmentalists estimate that it could be anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years.
Incinerating plastic doesn't seem to be an option for safely eliminating plastic waste, either. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, burning plastic is equivalent to burning fossil fuels, says Friends of the Earth (FOE). FOE actually recommends landfills as a better way of containing plastic waste, as at least it keeps the carbon contained in the ground, it says, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. And while recycling appears to be the automatic safe option, critics complain that recycling is too labor-intensive, energy-intensive and costly.
As a result, plastic recycling programs have met with varying degrees of success around the world: in Sweden the recycling rate of PET bottles in 2004 was 80 percent compared to the U.S which was 15 percent. According to the Container Recycling Institute, U.S plastic recycling rates have been in decline for the past 10 years (some of this may have to do with the fact that waste is increasingly being shipped to places like China, which now boasts the world's biggest plastic recycling plant in Beijing). And according to Reusablebags.com, only 1 percent to 3 percent of plastic bags ever get recycled.
The conclusion that more people appear to be coming to as the best choice for the future of plastic is one of two options: reuse or stop production at source. The project undertaken by the Kerala Highway Research Institute in India, where shredded plastic waste has been mixed with bitumen to lay roads, is certainly a good example of the former, particularly as the proponents of the scheme claim the road is stronger and more durable than non-plastic roads, although that remains to be seen.
As for the latter option, more and more nations are taking steps to ban plastic bags such as Australia, Bangladesh, Ireland, Italy, South Africa and Taiwan as well as parts of India. But such initiatives have been slow in progressing, with some governments unwilling to force the main purveyors of plastic -- supermarkets -- to stop selling them, preferring to encourage voluntary programs.
Perhaps the most successful strategy to date has been Ireland's "PlasTax," where consumers are charged for each bag they use. Launched in 2002 it has now resulted in a 90 percent reduction in plastic bag use. E-mail to a friend
(Sources: Container Recycling Institute, Reusablebags.com, PlasticsResource.com, American Chemistry Council, Treehugger.com, Planetark.com, Greenpeace, Christian Science Monitor, Fast Company, Friends of the Earth, New Scientist, Earth Policy, Waste Online)