Living in the Anthropocene

Have you ever asked yourself which is the most present material in the world of running?

In the last few years plastic has powerfully entered the world of sports and of running in particular. Shoes and gear lighter and lighter, training tracks and security devices have allowed athletes to improve their timings and overcome their objectives in an ever more disruptive way. Plastic is a protagonist even in secondary moments, for example in occasions like sport manifestations the use of race packs, backpacks and gadgets usually made of plastic is more and more frequent, and too often these are lost in the environment.

In 1861, when Alexander Parkes, thanks to a study on the cellulose nitrate, managed to isolate and patent the first semi synthetic plastic material, the Parkesine, for sure could not have imagined how this discovery would have negatively influenced the future of planet earth. Neither Giulio Natta, nobel prize in 1963, who in 1954 discovered isotactic polypropylene (PP) had probably thought about the intense usage we would have done in the XXI century.

Plastic, used for packaging, in the building industry, in cars, in electronics and in other areas, have had over the years an enormous increment in its production, and it reached up to 310 millions of tons in 2017[1]. The 90% of this derives from virgin fossil fuels and about 6% of the global petroleum consumption is destined to its production.

While the production is increasing exponentially year after year, the methods for disposal and re-use remain unchanged and poorly used, causing important damages to the environment. According to the OCSE estimates, only 15% of plastic is recycled worldwide, 25% is incinerated and the remaining 60% goes in the dumps, is burned outside (releasing pollutants and greenhouse gases) or ends up in the environment.

Why is it that only 15% of plastic is recycled? Because recycling costs are elevated, the systems that can separate the various polymers are very expensive, the quality of recycled plastic is poorer then the one produced “ex novo”, but especially because in Europe the demand for recycled plastic is very low – not by chance the majority of plastic recycled in the old continent is exported to China.

Politic reasons play a fundamental role in this context, and contribute to avoid that processing systems like the one created by the Joint venture LyondellBasell – Suez, that is able to re-transform plastic in a high quality material equal to the one produced from virgin matters, are added to the public system of disposal.

In order to reverse this trend, European institutions are working to immediately reduce (within 2021) the use of single use plastic, and in longer periods, to implement the measures to decrease the use in general, like implementing economical aspects and quality of recycled plastic, promoting investment and innovation in the chain of plastic value, take advantage of global actions.

As runners, we could use some precautions both during races and in other occasions, that could influence in an important way the fate of the planet. Substituting plastic bottles with reusable ones sustaining projects like 4ocean, giving new life to the shoes and gear we don’t use anymore, donating them or encouraging projects like Used Running Shoes for Kenya, or alternating the usual training with some ploggin, are just some of the small actions that can contribute to improve the conditions of the environment we live in and change this world of plastic.

[1] Gianfranco Bologna, I numeri sulla plastica, WWF (2018), https://www.wwf.it/news/notizie/?uNewsID=37160

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