Per capita GNP (in thousands of US$)

Figure 1.1. Dependence of annual per capita consumption of plastics on the GNP of a country.

packaging products in the developing world as well. Competitive wages in these countries attract polymer-based industries, particularly the low-technology processing operations, further encouraging the use of plastics in the developing world. The large disparity in labor rates2 for plastics industry workers in the United States and in places as close as Mexico has remained unchanged in the past decade. Processing operations such as fiber spinning, film blowing, pipe or conduit extrusion, and injection-molding are increasingly being carried out in the developing countries with low labor costs. Not surprisingly, plastics processing equipment is also increasingly being manufactured in developing countries as well as in the West. For instance, in 1993 the number of injection-molding machines manufactured in Asia exceeded that manufactured in the United States

2 The average hourly compensation for production workers in the plastics industry (SIC 308) in the United States during 1998 was US$15.39. The same rate in U.S. dollars for some selected countries follows:


Hourly wage in US$


Hourly wage in US$









Hong Kong (China)




Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington, DC, 1997. Web site: flshcind.htm.

Per capita GNP (in thousands of US$)

Figure 1.1. Dependence of annual per capita consumption of plastics on the GNP of a country.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington, DC, 1997. Web site: flshcind.htm.

and Germany combined [2]. Also, the considerably less stringent environmental regulations in developing regions tend to lower operational costs for chemical industries relative to that in the United States or western Europe. The global trend is clear; the plastics industry will continue to prosper worldwide with increasing quantities being manufactured, processed, and used in the developing nations.

Most discussions on plastics and the environment center on the potential contribution of the production use and disposal plastics to environmental pollution. Plastics in common with other man-made (or man-processed) materials such as paper or glass require energy and raw materials for their manufacture. As with other materials, the production of plastics does use fossil fuel, contribute to emissions, and leaves behind waste materials to be disposed of. Plastics are hardly a unique class of materials in this regard. The issue at hand is not if the production and use of plastics results in a significant environmental disruption, but whether the environmental cost is ultimately justified in terms of economical, environmental, and other societal benefits gained through the use of plastics. The pertinent question to pose is whether the same degree of benefits offered by plastics (in a given application such as packaging) might be delivered by an alternate material that has a lower environmental penalty associated with its use. For instance, over half of the crude oil production is used in the area of transportation,3 and this application does result in considerable resource depletion as well as environmental damage. But, no convenient, cost-effective, less polluting alternative for replacing gasoline-driven mass transportation is presently available. At a societal level the benefits of an efficient transportation system evidently justifies the substantial environmental "footprint" associated with transportation. The relative small expenditure of precious fossil fuel reserves and the potential industrial emissions in the plastics industry (or any other industry) needs to be similarly evaluated. What are the benefits and environmental costs of using plastics? The impressive record of plastics in the marketplace is compelling evidence that plastics provide good value for the money. A class of materials only about half a century old, plastics have already pervaded most applications ranging from medical implants to aircraft parts. Novel uses for plastics continue to emerge on a regular basis and all indications point to their continued success.

With increased use of plastics in consumer applications environmental concerns relating to these materials are beginning to be raised. For instance, a particularly visible plastics-related environmental problem is that of municipal solid waste disposal. With about 30% of the plastics production used in packaging, it is not surprising to find a significant and growing fraction of plastics in the municipal solid waste and in urban litter streams. Consumer awareness and sensitivity to the environmental impact of solid waste has never been at a higher

3 Automobile use is the main drain on fossil fuel reserves, and in the United States ownership level has reached 0.77 automobiles per licensed driver by 1999. About 15% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are attributed to automobiles [60].

level.4 Today, the majority of American consumers go so far as to claim that corporate environmental reputation directly affects their brand loyalty and product choice in the marketplace. For a while, the "plastic or paper" issue was heatedly debated and even influenced consumer preferences for bagging at supermarket checkout counters. Similar concerns on Styrofoam packaging in the waste stream so strongly affected consumer behavior that major fast-food chains switched over from Styrofoam sandwich boxes to paper products in their disposable fast-food boxes. Published reports [3] of persistent nonbiodegradable Styrofoam packaging waste in old landfills played a role in crafting this consumer preference. International concerted response to the recognition of plastics as a significant xenobiotic pollutant of the oceans resulted in the U.S. ratification of an international maritime agreement (MARPOL Annex V)5 in 1987 that severely limited the discharge of plastics waste into the sea. The Annex V of MARPOL implemented in the U.S. Congress via Public Law 100-220 lead to military vessels complying with these restrictions. Numerous related concerns in the United States and abroad can be added to the list, which will continue to grow for some time. The most recent major piece of legislation affecting polymer use is perhaps the control of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in polymer-based coating formulations, promulgated in 1999 (under the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act). These VOC restrictions will continue to be reviewed, and additional controls on the release of hazardous air pollutants are expected to further limit the coatings (and adhesive) formulation industries in the near future.

For the present purpose, it is convenient to view the polymer industry in segments. Technology that synthesizes the resin, forms it into prils, and transports it to the point of use is the manufacturing segment of the industry. Processing of the resin into an intermediate product (such as a masterbatch) intended for further processing or a final product for consumer use is a second segment. The most visible segment is where the consumer uses the plastic product and the product is either disposed of or recycled at the end of its useful life (in some cases as short as a few minutes). Each of these stages in the life cycle of a plastic product has associated environmental concerns. These need to be examined to determine if they are real or perceived issues and which are significant in quantitative terms. Ideally, the issues must be considered in the broader context of the total global environment and in relation to the long-term strategies for sustainable growth of human societies.

4 The year 2000 survey of consumer attitudes reported in the Green Gauge Report by Roper-Starch Worldwide (New York) shows 49% of the consumers polled were concerned enough about the environment to pay a small premium for environmentally compatible consumer products.

5 Three international treaties comprise MARPOL: (a) the Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping from Ships and Aircraft, adopted at Oslo on February 15, 1972; (b) the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, adopted at London on November 2, 1973, and (c) the Protocol of 1978 relating to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, adopted in London on February 17, 1973.

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