Our love affair with man-made plastics really began in the 19th century with a material derived from cellulose called Parkesine after its British inventor Alexander Parkes. Now there are around 45 unique types of plastics, each with dozens of variations. The key feature of all plastics is that they are polymers, ie large molecules consisting of chains of linked monomers sub-units. Most derive from oil. Manufacturers are able to alter the physical structure to suit particular applications. Additives (sometimes chemical, sometimes natural) are used to colour the plastic or give it particular properties.
The uses of plastics are too numerous to count and not always readily apparent, such as the use of microplastics within paints and inks. However, the very affordability and ubiquity of plastic is also its Achilles' heel: being cheap to mass produce it is often low cost and correspondingly readily discarded after use. Plastic packaging was famously pictured in Blue Planet 2 entangling marine animals. Indeed, release to the environment has sometimes been intentional – witness the microbeads previously included within "wash off" consumer products – now banned.
It is current Government policy in England to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. So far this has targeted "problematic" single-use plastics – eg carrier bags, straws and drinks bottles. Moves are also afoot to extend the responsibility of producers of packaging waste to the costs of its final disposal (see more on this below) and to tax plastic packaging made in the UK using less than 30% recycled plastic content.
However, these have not begun to touch on plastics embedded in larger more permanent uses such as buildings.
For our thoughts on plastic in the construction industry, read here.
This article was first published on 11 December 2019 in Real Estate. Reconsidered.
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