From plastic back to paper: a retrograde policy

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From plastic back to paper: a retrograde policy

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Proem

Engr. Liberato Lupot, Jr. who was my Assistant Dean when I was the dean of Engineering at the University of Bohol, sent me a text message a few weeks ago to ask me to make an article about the new policy of prohibiting “single use plastic” in stores.  His opinion was that it is a questionable policy.

I told him that I will research on it.  True enough, after my research I found out that the intent is correct but the ordinance is wrong.

Definition

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The dictionary defines plastic as any material that is capable of being molded or pliable.  Therefore clay is plastic. A bubble gum is plastic. Even steel is plastic. So many materials are plastic.

In Soils Engineering there is a term called “Plastic Limit” of soils and “Plasticity Index”.  In steel design of structures there is a method known as “Plastic Design of Steel” and the procedure involves “Plastic Mechanism”.

I know that the popular concept of the term “plastic” refers to the cellulose material made from petrochemicals.  Since it is made from oil, it is not soluble in ordinary solvent like water. It is now considered harmful to the environment because it is not biodegradable or will not decompose.

The plastic made from petrochemicals is only one type of plastic.  I doubt if the ordinances made in different towns and city in Bohol defines what the plastic they mean is.  I only read the word “plastic”, which includes any material that can be molded. Even bread dough is plastic.

For the sake of our discussion we will just follow the popular concept of a plastic and compare it to paper.

Paper

Paper is a thin sheet of material made from reeds, grasses, trees, and plants.  It has been manufactured since the time of the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt. Paper is usually used for writing, wrapping, decoration, etc.

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The most common material in making paper is the pulp from trees.  As civilization progressed the need for more paper increased and many trees were cut to make paper.

A tree is also important to man because it absorbs the carbon dioxide that is harmful to man and gives off oxygen that is needed by man.

When so many trees were cut, it was soon realized that humanity is endangered for lack of oxygen and too much carbon dioxide.  The cutting of trees was limited and a substitute for the wrappers, cups, etc. made of paper was introduced, which is the plastic made from petrochemicals.

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When plastic was created from petrochemicals it was hailed as a great improvement in civilization. It was cheap and very versatile.

When you go to the market you will no longer bring your basket or the buyot (burileaf bag). Your purchased items will be placed in plastic bags or wrappers.

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At the onset of the use of “plastic” there were already some people who warned of the danger of plastic.  It was because it was non-biodegradable. Their arguments were labeled as “foolish” because it is very easy to dispose the plastic by burning.

Later on it was found out that by burning plastics you will release harmful chemicals into the air and the burning of plastic was prohibited.  It was then that the problem of disposing of the plastic was realized.

Plastic

Plastic from petrochemicals is already used today in almost any man made product.  It is very versatile and cheap. It can be made hard, soft, rigid, pliant, thick, thin, etc. It will not rust and not biodegradable.  In the beginning this property was hailed as an advantage but now it is viewed as a disadvantage.

At present it is yet the “single use” plastic that is banned and to be substituted by paper, such as disposable drinking cup.  Soon many uses of plastic will be replaced by paper. Paper is now viewed as advantageous because it is biodegradable.

The Dilemma

If we ban plastic and replace it with paper, we will have a dilemma or predicament.  The question is where shall we have the trees to be cut to make into paper?

A one (1) ream of short bond paper has a volume of 28cm x 22cm x 5cm = 3,080 cm3.  A tree that is 30cm (12in.) in diameter and 4 meters high will give a volume of 282,743.33 cm3.  Divide this by the volume of one ream of bond paper will give an answer of 91.799 or approximately 92 reams of bond paper.

The problem is it will take about ten (10) years to grow a tree to have a diameter of about 30cm or one foot and a height of 4 meters.  Therefore it will take ten years to produce 92 reams of bond paper.

At present imagine how many trees are cut to produce the newspaper that is published daily.  How many reams of paper are used in offices and schools and many others that use paper then convert it to the number of trees that are cut; where will we get the trees?

The dilemma is — if we stop using plastic we will increase the use of paper and reduce the number of trees.  In both case we will end up with the problem of pollution. The trees are needed to reduce carbon dioxide pollution and increase the production of oxygen in the atmosphere.

Recycling

One of the popular suggested solutions is the shortsighted recommendation of recycling.  After the recycled plastic product is finished being used you still have a plastic waste to contend with.  You are just postponing the disposal of the plastic.

It is not realized that it is more expensive to recycle a plastic product than use a freshly made plastic.  Imagine the expense of cleaning and sorting the waste plastic products. There is also a problem of the consistency of supply of wasted plastic if ever your recycling will be successful.  Recycling is like a poem, it is only beautiful in words but not profitable to implement.

Comment

The real problem is how to dispose of the waste plastic material.  All the present solutions are just “band aid” solution.

There are now many methods and procedures on disposing waste products to reduce it to molecular level or plasma level. If you will disintegrate a material into plasma level, there will be no more problem of disease, etc. because the bacteria or radioactive materials is transformed to molecules and from the molecules you can create another type of material.

At present the procedure is still very expensive and governments in advanced countries and big-time businessmen could not yet see the profit to be obtained.

Advanced countries still find it profitable just to send their garbage to poor countries like the Philippines.

We have brilliant graduates every year.  The problem is they are educated in English.  Our best graduates can easily pass the screening process in the United States and other English speaking countries.  Those who could not pass are left in the Philippines and they are the one we expect to solve our problems.

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