Nature hates waste

Redwood comment
Published:  19 August, 2021
Credit: Hermes Rivera

I found a neighbour up a ladder painting his windows this morning. His windows were specially crafted by a specialist joiner to fit a house which is many hundreds of years old. He was complaining of other old houses where the owners had renewed old windows with plastic ones. Such plastic windows, he said only have a life of 20 years. Sunlight, he explained, “degrades everything”.

He is almost right. The new term we are having to learn is “bioremediation”, which is the modern way to explain that nature does not let anything go to waste. It breaks it down, moving it around as molecules back into the cycle of our living planet. Nature’s problem is that, since the start of the Industrial Age, we have overwhelmed it with the sheer volume of technology. Plastics are an area where both technological and volume issues have beaten nature.

The word ‘’plastic’’ comes from the Greek ''plastikos'', meaning fit for moulding. During its manufacture through ‘cracking’ and refining fossil fuels – both gas and oil – its plasticity allows it to be cast, pressed or extruded into a variety of shapes.

Plastics in the sun

My neighbour is right that plastics do break down with sunlight as well as friction and sea water. As he says, most plastics are made for a life of 20 years, although leather competitive coated materials can start to fail at the junction and peel after three to five years. At London’s Science Museum, they are desperately trying to save some of the original space suits, which are disintegrating. A plastics conservation course I attended last year told us storage in a fridge where it was cold and dark was the only solution.

You might say that this is nature doing its job, but what is happening is not that the polymer is being destroyed, but the article is being rendered useless. The softeners, preservatives, flame retardants and the other additives needed for different end uses start to leach out, turn yellow or become sticky, thus destroying the product’s utility. What nature cannot do is biodegrade the actual plastic. So, on our beaches we find discarded plastic bottles and shoes, while in the oceans we have same material broken into microscopic particles, but still the original plastic, all creating huge amounts of damage to biodiversity.

The plastics industry is dominated by a few large and very wealthy companies, so the search is on to find enzymes that will eat away (bio-remedy) the material they produce, as well as new ways of recycling. This will be backed by a big budget promotional campaign but it will not be able to disguise the short life, the total absence of repair possibilities and the dreadful impossibility of collecting more than a tiny fraction of the used articles produced for any form of recycling or treatment.

Add to that the significant amounts of CO2 produced during their first manufacture, though it is hard to get a clear figure for this and the plastics industry argues that often the carbon footprint of the alternates used, such as in some auto-parts, can be higher.

It looks as though the production of plastics is a non-circular cycle that we cannot stop, and which bio-remediation cannot help. Quite unlike leather. that has many thousands of years of demonstrating that nature provides a fossil fuel free raw material. And, as long as tanners are responsible in processing and with everything that comes out of the tannery, leather or not, nature will help with the end-of-life as well.

Mike Redwood

August 18, 2021

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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