Globally, 8.3 billion metric tonnes of virgin plastic was produced between 1950-2015, according to Our World in Data research.
With some utilization spans as low as 12 minutes, reports show 90% of productions were discarded within less than a year; only 9% recycled. Subsequently, 4.9 billion metric tonnes of discarded materials now occupy landfills and dumps.
Production and disposal methods cause noxious chemical contamination, and don’t utilize plastic’s compositional structure, considering most remain 400-1,200 years, says an ACS Perspective by Chamas et al. This underutilization encourages exponential virgin production cycles; thus, disposal and contamination. Closing this “loop” with primary or secondary recycling methods pose equally threatening implications, as both require significant energy, fossil fuels, and water in addition to reinstituting noxious chemicals.
Thermoplastics, types 1-6, are the most abundant plastic subset and therefore prioritized for safe mitigation. Due to thermal degradation factors and susceptibility to contamination, thermoplastics suffer compositional weakening with repetitive thermal and mechanical processing, making cyclical reprocessing difficult.
For instance, primary recycling requires ancillary resources for heat and chemical washing to ensure pure feedstock is remanufactured into similar or original product types; i.e., bottle to bottle.
Additionally, Secondary recycling remanufactures cleansed feedstock into new items that, unfortunately, become unrecyclable with each “re-cycle” through decreased purity from use, product proximity, trace substances or plastic additives.
Architecturally, plastics are ubiquitous, quickly becoming a preferred building/design material. Even construction uses plastics extensively. From cladding to flooring or reinforcement chairs to insulation; common plastics of these industries include polyvinyl chloride, polycarbonate, expanded polystyrene, polypropylene, polyethylene, acrylic, etc.
Architects specify plastic products generally addressing aesthetic, durability, and performance factors. However, information necessary to comprehensively consider environmental and human health contributors, such as plastics’ compositional unyielding, sensitivity to heat and contamination, or CO2 emissions, are not readily accessible to architects, nor intrinsic in specification writing processes.
In fact, in building sectors, plastics are integral in meeting various Net Zero and carbon neutral challenges. Challenges seeking to dispel the very factors plastics contribute to.
This research proposes a reference specification framework that discloses embodied environmental and human health implications of plastics to architects, engineers and specifiers. Enabling conscious decisions beyond cost, aesthetics, or product warranty. Rather, designers can now consider factors of embodied energy, Co2, red list chemical presence/exposure, or compositional stability throughout the product’s life-cycle, i.e, production, construction/installation, occupancy, demolition and reuse.
Ultimately, designers gain agency to choose products that transition safely through life-cycles, hence, maintaining a closed loop from manufacturing to reuse; greatly reducing virgin productions.
In conclusion, production, disposal, and certain recycling methods of plastics products pose detrimental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions, chemical leaching, and cancerous byproducts. All greatly affecting the health of humanity, the environment, and nonrenewable resource quantities. Awareness of these exceedingly harmful impacts during design material detailing and specification processes is key in mitigating the unchecked growth of the ubiquitous industry plastics. This framework brings awareness to harmful impacts as well as agency for designers to choose responsibly for the long term.