Engineering and Environmental Technology, Research Triangle Institute
Even a cursory study of the global environment leads to the inescapable and gloomy conclusion that humankind is fast approaching a crisis. A combination of factors has lead the most successful species ever to inhabit Earth to reach a rate of growth that can no longer be sustained by the resource base available on the planet. The world population is increasing and by latest estimates will reach 10.4 billion in year 2100. The food requirements to support this large a population and their activities come for the most part, directly or indirectly, from daily insolation of Earth by the sun. Primarily, this is the solar energy trapped by plants through photosynthesis and transferred up to various levels of the food chain.
Apart from the energy derived from food, our modern life-style demands additional sources of energy primarily for transportation and industrial production of goods. Unlike other species that grow within a diurnal solar energy budget, humans have developed technologies to access Earth's fossil fuel reserves, particularly petroleum resources, to supplement the meager budget of daily solar insolation. Deposits of fossil fuels created over millions of years via collection and storage of solar energy by plants have served humans very well since the days of the industrial revolution. The problem is that our modern life-style demands that we draw heavily upon these limited and diminishing reserves, at a rate very much faster than they can be replaced by the natural geochemical cycles. Even worse, in using these to produce the goods and services to keep society supplied, we not only spend these energy reserves inefficiently but also pollute the environment and create enormous amounts of waste in the process. The problem of waste generation and industrial pollution, once a local or at best a regional concern has now turned into a growing transboundary problem. In terms of impact it is no longer merely a question of pollution causing illnesses, birth defects, urban smog, and Love Canals that can be cordoned off. Today,
Plastics and the Environment, Edited by Anthony L. Andrady. ISBN 0-471-09520-6 © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
human activity is beginning to threaten the very fabric of the biosphere. The global ecosystem is already showing signs of being compromised by radiative forcing from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, acidification of water resources, and loss of biodiversity. This is the first time in the history of the planet that human activity has resulted in such intense and perhaps irreparable damage to the environment.
Surprisingly, the amount of attention paid to this global threat has been quite disproportionate to its potential impact. While it has certainly prompted some discussion in academia as well as in industry, few concerted plans of action have emerged from the rhetoric. In the United States, national commitment to research the problem and options for its mitigation has been at best a limited one. At the international level, the progress in some fronts, such as in the Montreal Protocol on limiting the use of ozone-depleting chemicals, have proven that collective activity on global problems is indeed possible. Yet, the momentum on other crucial environmental issues such as the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions or the preservation of biodiversity has been disappointing.
What has all this got to do with polymers? A major goal of this work is to assess the extent to which the production and use of plastics1 contribute to global environmental ills. The plastics industry is healthy with an annual growth rate of 4-5% between 1996 and 1999. The world resin production in the year 2000 was approximately 135 million tons, with North American capacity accounting for about a third of it. Western Europe and Asia are also major manufacturing regions each accounting for 20-23% of the total production. This situation, however, is likely to change with developing countries turning to increased production and utilization of plastics in the future. Plastics are rapidly becoming cost competitive with most traditional materials of construction and will continue to be increasingly popular in developing countries.
Presently, the use of plastics in consumer goods is relatively more prevalent in the developed countries. In fact the per capita consumption of plastics worldwide correlates surprisingly well with the per capita gross national product (GNP) of the country  (see Fig. 1.1). In affluent countries such as Japan or in western Europe plastics consumption can be as high as 200 lb/person-year as opposed to less than 10 lb/person-year in the least developed countries. However, on a volume basis, the future consumption of plastics is likely to increase the fastest in developing nations, particularly in China, India, and some countries in Latin America. Even a very small increase in the per capita consumption of plastics in highly populated countries translates into a very large increase in the volume of polymer usage. Among the healthiest markets for plastics in most countries is packaging applications, which is growing at a steady pace, and is consistently replacing conventional materials such as glass or metal. Increasing global affluence has encouraged the increased use of disposable plastic
1 Polymers include plastics as well as elastomers, although the plastics segment of the industry is relatively much larger. This discussion focuses primarily on plastics, as most of the common and visible environmental concerns pertain to the plastics industry.
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