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Where would we be without plastics?

Every morning I wake up, take a shower, shave and clean my teeth. These days I either jog or take a bus to work, but for most of my working life I’ve driven my car. Upon reaching my office, I switch on my laptop and plug in my phone. A couple of times a month I’ll take a plane for business or leisure purposes. During the weekends my wife and I do the same kind of things that every family does, like shopping or going to the movies. If either of us is sick, of course we go to the hospital for medical care. Does this all sound familiar?

My name is Laurence Jones and I am a marketing professional for an international plastics company, Borouge, and I am very proud of this industry. Many readers will now say, “ugh plastics” and wonder how I can feel happy (let alone proud) to be associated with such an industry. Everyone is bombarded with anti-plastic messages from the BPA in polycarbonate and phthalates in PVC to plastics bags blowing around in the wind and polluting our waterways. I believe plastics are extremely good for the environment (and humanity as a whole) and they only cause problems when they are irresponsibly released into the environment as litter and general waste. Borouge, makes innovative polyolefins (polyethylene and polypropylene) that we use to positively impact what we call our 6 global challenges: environment, water, energy, food, health and waste.

So, I know that every time I take a shower, the municipal water pipes made from polyethylene bring clean water to my home and help save up to 40 per cent in water leakage as compared to old pipe technologies – not only saving water, but also the energy needed to purify the water.

Whenever we use a car, it’s gratifying to know that we consume less petrol due to the lightweight plastics materials, led by polypropylene, that are used by the vehicle’s manufacturer. In fact the use of such components in the auto industry in the last three decades has increased steadily leading to significant decreases in petrol consumption. The volume of polypropylene in cars has grown faster than others plastics, in Europe reaching an average of 68 kg per car.

Pretty much everything we do consumes energy and in almost every case, energy consumption is reduced through the innovative use of plastics.

Where would we be without plastics

What about that unplanned trip to the hospital? Traditionally hospital hygiene has heavily relied on the use of plastics, yet modern technological advances such as life-like prostheses and groundbreaking diagnosis and treatment procedures that save millions of lives wouldn’t have been possible without the virtues of plastics. Thanks to advanced healthcare, more people live longer, healthier lives.

So – we are all living longer, infant mortality rates are improving and global population is growing. Current projections say that the global population (currently just over 7 billion) will rise to more than 11 billion by 2050. In order to better our lives, more than 50% of the Earth’s population now live in towns and cities with an expectation that this will increase to 60% by 2030 and who knows what it will look like in 2050. This, along with climate change, is a key driver behind “the food challenge” as we no longer live where food is produced. I have heard that if we don’t change the way that we produce and transport food, by 2050 we will need two planet Earths to feed everyone. Last time I looked, we only had one!

In Borouge, we are approaching the food challenge from two angles.

Food production: through the use of our proprietary Borstar® polyethylene technology we produce greenhouse film materials that are naturally hazy (not clear like other polyethylene films) – projecting what we call diffused light to the plants below. This is due to the unique matte surface of the film, not due to additives that can reduce the amount of light reaching the plants. Depending on the climate conditions, the plant type and the soil, we have seen increases in crop yields of between 5 and 35% compared to clear films and we expect significantly higher numbers compared to when greenhouses are not used. With the use of irrigation pipes which allow water and the correct fertilizers being delivered directly to the plant roots, we also minimize water and fertilizer usage.

Food preservation: the World Health Organization says that up to 35% of food is wasted before it is consumed and that in countries with poor logistics this could be as high as 50%. According to Plastics Europe, in countries that use proper packaging this number drops to 3%. However, public perception is that we don’t need plastic packaging for food. In Borouge, we supply advanced polyolefin solutions for food packaging because we know that we cannot afford to lose 35-50% when the food challenge really starts to bite. However, we also know that we are working with a non-renewable resource so are working with major brand owners to design packages that are reusable or recyclable rather than use once and throw away.

This leads us to another public concern about plastics – the fact that they come from oil or gas and these are non-renewable. This is true but few people realise that we only convert around 4% into plastics. Most of rest is burned for energy or fuel. By using plastics we actually reduce the amount of fossil fuels needed to be burned for consumption, and by insulating transmission and distribution cables to prevent electricity losses. If we want to consume less fossil fuel, we need to have good alternatives for energy production and preserve the valuable black stuff to make environment preserving plastics.

Plastics are one of the most significant man made assets that have in more ways than one, shaped our world for past many decades. However, similar to all resources, plastics also call for a more responsible usage. With its long lasting and completely recyclable properties, innovative plastics solutions are today addressing major global challenges including shortage of food and water, climate change and energy shortage.

None of us want to see plastic products being blown around in the wind, or getting washed into the sea. Waste is only waste when it is wasted. Right?

Fortunately, even after a lifetime’s use, reuse and recycle for our daily needs, plastics still need not be dumped as waste and should be transformed into a energy, thus fulfilling the original destiny of all fossil fuels.

Think of it as borrowing the fuel for many years, enjoying the benefits of a fantastic array of plastic articles then converting the fuel to energy.

A future without plastics would mean turning back the clock. Innovative plastics are here to stay and contribute to a better world, helping reduce carbon dioxide levels and ensuring that the lifestyles of billions of people around the world are not compromised. If we don’t want to go back to a life without plastics, then we need to make sure we all dispose of them in a responsible way. Reuse as often as possible, recycle when reuse is no longer an option, dispose properly in the trash when recycling is no longer viable and never ever drop plastic as litter. If we live by these basic and very easy rules we all have a bright future – thanks to plastics.

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