The paper is the first global analysis of “all mass produced plastics ever manufactured.” It starts with the birth of plastics, which only dates back to the 1950s. This seems unimaginable when you think of resin technology, polymer development, and now large-scale, mass produced films, parts and packaging. Really, until after WWII, the military was the only user. (And this is true of PSA, hence my preoccupation with the analogy!). The growth in plastics production was nothing short of extraordinary, surpassing most other manmade materials. The largest growth period for plastics was caused by packaging, according to Geyer and group, because of a global shift from reusable to single-use containers. Naturally, you can guess what else happened: an increase in the share of plastics in municipal solid waste, from less than 1% in 1960 to more than 10% by 2005.
The vast majority of monomers used to make plastics are ethylene and propylede, and they are derived from fossil hydrocarbons. None of these are biodegradable. As a result, they accumulate rather than decompose in landfills or other natural environments such as water, both oceans and fresh water like the Great Lakes. As of today, the only way to permanently eliminate plastic waste is by destructive thermal treatment such as combustion or pyrolysis (chemical decomposition of a substance by heat). And again, I might add, this is one of the reasons I am so focused on diverting our by-product, matrix, into energy applications. It is the only large volume solution that makes economic sense. (More in another issue on this with comments by guest contributor Ted Hansen, president and CEO of Convergen Energy). The growth of the plastics industry is certainly the cause of greater plastic by-product in our solid waste. “Plastic debris has been found in all major ocean basins, with an estimated 11 – 12 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste generated on land, entering the marine environment in 2010 alone. Contamination of fresh water systems and terrestrial habitats is also increasingly reported, as is environmental contamination with synthetic films. “Plastic waste is now so ubiquitous in the environment that it has been suggested as a geological indicator of the proposed Antropocene era.”
Geyer and his group analyzed all mass produced plastics by developing global data on production, use, end of life of polymer resins, synthetic films, and additives into a material flow model. See chart to the left.
The Geyer and group analysis includes thermoplastics, thermosets, polyurethanes, elastomers, coatings and sealants but focuses on the most common: high density polyethylene (PE), low density and linear low density polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), polyvinylchloride (PVC), polyethylene terephithalite (PET), and polyurethane (PUR) resins. Also polyester, polyamide, and acrylic films (PP&A).
Here’s what the analysis found: global production of all of the above increased from two million metric tons (MT) in 1950 to 380 million MT in 2015. They calculated an annual growth rate of 8.4% on a compounded basis during that same period. Total production during that period was almost eight billion MT, and of this 3.9 million MT were produced during the last 13 years. Today, China accounts for 28% of global resin and 68% of PP&A fiber production. Bio-based or biodegradable plastics are so small they were excluded from the analysis.
The paper continues with copious data but eventually concludes with an in-depth discussion of waste and the different “fate” scenarios. First, it can be reprocessed or recycled; second, plastics can be destroyed thermally. Finally, plastics can be discarded into a sanitary landfill or open dump or in the natural environment. Geyer and group conclude that only 30% of all plastics are currently in use. On a cumulative basis, about 10% has been recycled or destroyed thermally. The remaining 60% has been discarded in landfills.
The paper finishes:
Thus, without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet. The relative advantages and disadvantages of dematerialization, substitution, reuse, material recycling, waste-to-energy, and conversion technologies must be carefully considered to design the best solutions to the environmental challenges posed by the enormous and sustained global growth in plastics production and use.
I view our situation with pressure sensitive by-product in the same way. First, the technology, while invented in the late 30s and early 40s, didn’t see mature use until the 50s and 60s. Second, our growth rate has been spectacular, growing in many ways, just like plastics. Third, when started, we had no concern for end-of-life or waste. Sustainability and landfill avoidance were not part of our conscious thinking.
Things have changed, however, for both plastics and pressure sensitive. This brings me to a prediction. I believe that 50% of the matrix being generated in North America will be used in non-landfill applications by 2020. That’s a pretty bold prediction, I know. Nevertheless, it will happen. TLMI has just launched a survey with its converter members that asks “how much matrix do you generate, and what do you do with it?” Since TLMI converter members represent 70% of the total North American PSA market, we will be able to calculate total matrix volume in North America. I am further convinced that there will be enough pressure by end users (the brand owner) to reduce waste, that within two years we will have diverted at least 50% matrix from the waste stream.
Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is