During this #plasticfreeJuly, we really want to show our commitment to fighting plastic and generate awareness in our readers. Let’s thus start the journey into the story of plastics by first having a look at its definition and some of the basic notions around it.
The term ‘’plastic’’ is derived from the Greek word ''plastikos'', meaning fit for moulding. This refers to the material’s malleability, or plasticity during manufacture, which allows it to be cast, pressed, or extruded into a variety of shapes - such as films, fibres, plates, tubes, bottles, boxes, and much more.
Plastics is the term commonly used to describe a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic polymers. Where a polymer is a macromolecule made of repeating subunits and in the case of an organic compounds this repeating unit mostly includes Carbon and Hydrogen.
(Polyester basic compound that is repeated n times to create the polyester polymer)
Today about 99% of the plastic produced is obtained from oil, natural gas and coal - fossil fuels. The plastic production is a 4 step process that starts with the extraction of the raw material, fossil fuel in this case, that then gets refined to obtain different subproducts. The most used subproducts for plastic production are Methane, Ethane, Propane, Butane and Nafta.
The next step is the polymerization in which monomers are bonded into long chains (polymers). Out of this step you will obtain plastic resin pellets that will be further treated to obtain the desired material. The final step is known as Compounding/Processing and that is where the magic happens. In this phase, polymer resins are mixed with a blend of additives. The additives are important as each of them is used to lend to plastic targeted optimum properties such as toughness, flexibility, elasticity, colour; or to make them safer and hygienic for particular applications and use.
Light weight, excellent thermal and electrical insulation, corrosion resistance, transparency, malleability to create complex shapes are just some of the properties that made plastic become the popular material it is today. Furthermore, if the physical properties of a given plastic do not quite meet the specified requirements, its balance of properties can be modified with the addition of reinforcing fillers, colours, foaming agents, flame retardants, plasticisers, etc., to meet the demands of the specific application.
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That you believe it or not, humans have been using plastics for a very long time. What’s more unique is that for most of its history, plastic was naturally derived.
The very first application of natural plastic dates back to the 18th century when, after the discovery of rubber threes in the Amazon basin, both the American Charles Goodyear and the British Thomas Hancock took out patents on either side of the Atlantic for "vulcanised" rubber (rubber mixed with sulfur - 1820). Discovery that made possible the rubber tyre for the bicycle, and later the motor car. Thomas Hancock, meanwhile, collaborated with Charles Mackintosh to make water-resistant clothing (1823). It was still rubber, or better a close cousin known as gutta percha, that made electrification possible thanks to coating of cables (1850).
It was only in 1907 that the first synthetic plastic was discovered, with the invention of Bakelite by the Belgian-born American Leo Baekeland. It was the first synthetic plastic: the first to be derived not from plants or animals, but from fossil fuels. Baekeland used phenol, an acid derived from coal tar. His work opened the floodgates to a torrent of now-familiar synthetic plastics - polystyrene (PS) in 1929, polyester in 1930, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polythene (PE) in 1933, nylon in 1935.
However, the industry didn’t really get started until the Second World War, when plastic production increased steadily because of its use in military vehicles and radar insulation. Petrochemicals companies built plants to turn crude oil into plastic by the lorry load, with the predictable result that, by the end of the War in 1945, the industry faced a horrendous glut. That is were the modern plastic industry was born.
The versatility of the material is what made it widely used in many industries from automotive to packaging and textile. Since 1950, when the annual production of Plastic was about 1,5 Million Tons, the industry has grown disproportionately reaching an yearly production of over 350 Million Tons.
However, what slowly came to realization that it hadn’t been considered before, was that plastic had side effects (and quite dangerous ones) for both humans and the planet. Only in the late ‘70s we discovered that some of the additives used to make such versatile plastic containers, were contaminating our food and beverages: the toxicity of plastic was affecting human health. Acrylonitrile, used to make Coca Cola bottles back then, was the first addictive compound to be banned by the FDA due to its toxicity in 1977.
About a decade after, in 1987, another plastic related issue made the headlines in the US. A boat named the Garbage Barge set out to sea from Long Island (NY) carrying more than 3100 tons of waste as the local landfills had run out of space. The boat wondered the shorelines for months looking for a place to dump its trash becoming an icon of the consumerist era.
The glorious rise and growth of plastic use in the past 70 years has now turned into a global threat against the environment that arguably is going to be solved by who created it. The magic material that made products cheaper and more accessible, food last longer and easier to move around, has also fuelled a Single Use Culture in which the actual “working time” of that plastic product is between seconds and minutes. That is what happens, for example, with plastic packaging; that in 2015 generated 141 Million tons of waste (out of a production of 146 million tons) and that represent 39% of all plastic production and about 50% of plastic waste.
As of 2015, more than 6.9 billion tons of plastic waste had been generated. Around 9% of that was recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% accumulated in landfills or environment.
The reach of plastic has just no limits. So do its negative effects. Due to several reasons, such as plastic waste mismanagement across the world and direct tossing in the environment - known as littering - plastic can be found today nearly everywhere. Moreover, every year about 8 million tons of plastic escape in our oceans, plastic that gets where humans don’t. The organization 5Gyres has estimated that there are now around 270 million tons of plastic in our oceans, with 5 trillion pieces of plastic on the surface and a total of 51 trillion of microplastics (plastic pieces with a size lower than 5mm).
This plastic tide is renowned as one of the biggest threats that our oceans are facing for many reasons. Plastic pollution can kill marine mammals directly through entanglement in objects such as fishing gear, but also through ingestion, by being mistaken for food. By 2018, microplastics had been found in the organs of more than 114 aquatic species, including some species found only in the deepest ocean trenches. Moreover, not only plastics are non-digestible, but they’ve also been shown to concentrate pollutants up to a million times their level in the surrounding seawater, which are consequently delivered to the species that ingest them.
Plastic pollution has also devastating effects on lands. In fact, on top of being eaten by animals, when piled up in landfill or littered in the environment, it releases toxic compounds that contaminate the soil and the groundwater or it can cause floods by clogging drainage systems.
In the next chapter of the series, we will look into the alternatives to solve the plastic problem and bust some myth about recycling and bioplastics.