The prevalence of plastic in our lives has many questioning its ubiquitous nature. One primary reason is its cost-effectiveness. So, why is plastic so cheap to produce?
Plastic is inexpensive to manufacture because it’s derived from abundant fossil fuels like petroleum and natural gas. The actual production process also involves straightforward, cost-effective steps like heating and molding. Additionally, mass production methods and economy of scale help to drive down costs.
Dive in with us as we explore the economics of plastic production, and how this has fueled its omnipresence in our world today.
Plastic: The Ubiquitous Material
Plastic, an omnipresent material, is universally acclaimed for its wide-ranging applications. From packaging materials to household items, furniture to technology components, plastics are virtually everywhere. But ever wondered what exactly is plastic and how it became so ubiquitous?
What is Plastic?
On a fundamental level, plastics are synthetic materials made from a wide range of organic polymers like polyethylene, PVC, nylon, etc. Their malleability makes them useful in our everyday lives as they can be shaped into a variety of forms such as films, fibres, or packaging.
The History of Plastic and its Popularity Rise
The invention of plastic dates back to 1862 when Alexander Parkes introduced a material derived from cellulose, which could be molded when heated and retained its shape upon cooling. This material, named Parkesine, started the journey of plastic manufacturing.
Over time, the use of plastic expanded rapidly due to its ability to be molded into any shape and form. Its durability, lightweight, and cost-effectiveness have been instrumental in its widespread adoption.
The post World War II era saw a significant surge in the usage of plastics. With technology advancements, plastic types increased, giving birth to a multitude of products ranging from plastic bottles to synthetic fabrics. From the 1950s to early 2000s, the global plastic production skyrocketed from 2 million tonnes to approximately 380 million tonnes annually.
But what exactly makes plastic so cheap to produce? One of the primary reasons behind its low-cost production is its basic ingredient – petroleum. Petroleum, a non-renewable resource, is plentiful and relatively cheap. Lower manufacturing costs, combined with high durability and flexibility, makes plastic an economically viable option.
|Global Plastic Production (in million tonnes)
However, the abundant usage of plastic and its disposable nature poses serious environmental challenges. Seeking sustainable alternatives and promoting waste management practices are pivotal to mitigate its environmental impact.
The Economic Attraction: Why is Plastic So Cheap to Produce?
The production of plastic has faced some extensive criticism over the years; however, it continues to be a highly used product due to its low cost of production. But why exactly is plastic production so cheap? The key elements that contribute to the cost-effectiveness of producing plastics can be traced back to raw material costs and the manufacturing process.
Understanding Raw Material Cost
The cost of any product largely depends on the price of its raw materials—and plastic is no exception. The particular reasons for this inexpensive cost are the abundance of petroleum, plastics’ main ingredient, and the existing market oversupply.
Abundance of Petroleum: Plastic’s Primary Ingredient
Plastic is primarily made from petroleum byproducts that are already available during the oil-refining process. The additional cost to convert these byproducts into plastic is minimal, making the overall material cost relatively low. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, roughly 5% to 10% of U.S. oil consumption goes into producing plastic, indicating that it becomes more affordable with more abundant petroleum resources.
Oversupply: The Role of Market Forces
In addition to the availability of raw materials, market forces also play a significant role in shaping the cost of producing plastic. Over the past years, we have seen a surplus of natural gas and oil production, contributing to an oversupply in the market. This oversupply drives down prices and, as a consequence, reduces the cost of plastic production significantly.
The Manufacturing Process: Simplicity Equals Affordability
The process of manufacturing plastic also contributes to its overall affordability. The ease of mass production and the role of technology both play a role in controlling production costs.
Mass Production at Work
Plastic production is largely a mechanized and automated process. Once the infrastructure is in place, mass production comes into effect. The high volume of produced goods lowers the overall cost per individual item. Hence, producing in bulk aids in reducing costs, making plastic a cheaper alternative compared to other materials.
Technology’s Role in Lowering Production Costs
The advancement of technology has also significantly reduced the cost of producing plastic. Modern manufacturing technologies facilitate a faster, more efficient production process, thereby reducing energy consumption and labor costs. This further contributes to the overall affordability of creating plastic, helping to maintain its low-cost advantage.
By understanding these factors, it’s clear why plastic is such an economical choice for manufacturers and consumers alike, despite the environmental criticisms associated with it.
Environmental Impact: The Other Side of the Coin
The manufacturing cost of plastic is undeniably low, mainly due to low raw material and energy costs. However, this doesn’t take into account the environmental toll. The ecological cost of plastic production is vast and has significant impacts on our planet.
Ecological Cost of Cheap Plastic Production
Plastic production does play a significant part in exacerbating climate change. The carbon footprint associated with plastic production is considerable and continues to grow. Plastic production and incineration in 2015 alone produced 850 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions – an amount equivalent to the emissions from 189 coal-fired power plants.
The extraction and transport of fossil fuels used in making plastic, the emissions from manufacturing processes, and the environmental harms from mishandling plastic waste all contribute to its ecological cost. In 2019, the production and incineration of plastic produced more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases – the equivalent to the emissions from 136 new coal-fired power plants.
Further, plastic pollution in the oceans and waterways is a well-known issue. An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the ocean from land-based sources every single year.
Short Use, Long Life: The Irony of Plastic Items
The irony of plastic items is that while their use is often short-lived (think disposable utensils, packaging, bottles etc.), they persist in the environment for centuries. A cheap disposable plastic water bottle that is used for a few minutes can last up to 450 years in the ocean.
This persistent nature of plastic is leading to an environmental crisis. It’s estimated that there are already 150 million metric tons of plastic waste floating around in our oceans, and that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, by weight.
In fact, every minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans. This has disastrous consequences for marine life, with more than 800 species being affected by plastic contamination.
Is it Really Cheap? Hidden Costs of Plastic Production
Plastic has been a ubiquitous part of our lives for the past century or so. It’s widely praised for being inexpensive to produce. But are we really considering all the costs associated with its production? Let’s delve into the hidden health and environmental costs of plastic production which often go under the radar.
The Health Cost: Plastic and its Toxic Effects
Plastic production often creates some toxic bi-products and pollutants. There’s a large body of scientific research suggesting a link between exposure to toxic emission from plastic with health problems like cancer, neurological and developmental issues, hormone disruption, and many others.
Take PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride), for instance. Its production involves dangerous toxins like vinyl chloride monomer and dioxins which are known carcinogens. Benzene, another common plastic manufacturing chemical, is associated with leukemia and other blood cell cancers. Note that these health effects not only impact the local vicinity of the factories but also the wider population through air, water, and food chain.
Associated Health Risks
Vinyl Chloride Monomer
Leukemia and other blood cell cancers
The Cleanup Cost: Dealing with Plastic Waste
Plastic waste disposal is a major environmental challenge. As of 2015, approximately 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste has been produced worldwide and only 9% of that has been recycled while 12% was incinerated and 79% ended up in landfills or the natural environment. In the US alone, the cost of disposing of plastic waste was estimated at $12.5 billion in 2010.
Furthermore, the problems don’t end once the plastic is in the landfill. Many plastics persist in the environment for hundreds or even thousands of years. They leak dangerous chemicals into the surrounding soil and water and can affect wildlife and even filter back into the human food chain. The economic cost of these indirect impacts is difficult to calculate but is certainly enormous.
- 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste produced worldwide as of 2015
- 9% of this waste has been recycled
- 12% of this waste has been incinerated
- 79% of this waste ended up in landfills or the natural environment
Therefore, while plastic production may seem cheap from the outset, we must remember to account for these hidden health and environmental costs. If we were to add these, would plastic production still come across as cheap?
Alternatives to Plastic: A Glimpse into the Future
In the recent times, innovative solutions are gaining momentum in addressing the environmental problems posed by conventional plastics. Sustainable materials are being developed and improved upon to serve as alternatives to plastic production, in a bid to strike a balance between functionality, cost-effectiveness, and environmental responsibility.
Innovation in Sustainable Materials
Advancements in technological capabilities have made it possible to innovate and create materials that parallel the properties of plastic, but with much less environmental impact. Sustainable materials are being created from various natural substances and wastes, offering a greener alternative to create products traditionally made of plastic.
Bioplastics: Nature’s Answer to Synthetic Plastics
Leading the way in sustainable materials are Bioplastics. These are derived from renewable resources like corn starch and sugarcane, and exhibit properties similar to synthetic plastics. Bioplastics typically use less fossil fuel during production and decompose much faster than conventional plastic, thereby reducing the carbon footprint.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are putting corn and prairie grasses to a new and innovative use, creating Polylactic Acid (PLA) plastic from the sugars of these plants. This bio-based, renewable and biodegradable alternative to petroleum-based plastic, it is estimated, could potentially reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80% over the conventional manufacturing processes.
Beyond Plastics: Other Eco-Friendly Alternatives
Ecovative Design, a New York-based biotech company, has developed a material called MycoFoam, a fully compostable and biodegradable alternative to Styrofoam. Made from the root structure of mushrooms, MycoFoam is a remarkable demonstration of how biofabrication can replace petroleum-based products.
Another excellent example is the innovative and sustainable material developed by ByFusion, called RePlast. Made entirely from unsorted plastic waste, RePlast blocks can be used in construction in place of traditional concrete blocks. This breakthrough recycling technology not only turns plastic waste into a valuable resource but also contributes to cutting down plastic pollution.
Despite these innovations, the path to replacing plastic isn’t straightforward. The challenge will always be to upscale these sustainable materials without compromising on their eco-friendly properties and keeping the process cost-effective.