Wheredo they come from, and how are they made?
ORIGIN & EVOLUTION
Plastic was the product of innovation and experimentation and was derived from petrochemicals.
In the initial stages, plastic can be traced back to the mid-19th century, when the first form of plastic, natural rubber, transformed into a more durable material was invented. This laid the foundation for the polymers.
The modern plastic industry began in the 19320s with the invention of Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic generally derived from polymers. The most commonly used polymer during the production of plastic is polyethylene.
However, during World War II, it was marketed as an alternative to depleting natural resources like iron, paper, glass, etc., leading to widespread production. The post-World War era witnessed a “Plastic Revolution.” New plastics, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), were invented and found in numerous packaging, construction, automotive, and consumer goods applications. Also, the development of new polymers, including polystyrene, polypropylene, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), further expanded the range of available plastics.
CHARACTERISTICS OF PLASTIC
But what made people switch to plastic?
Plastic was relatively cheaper and was readily available in large quantities. Also, it was lightweight and durable, which made it easier to transport. And due to its versatile nature, unlike glass, wood, and steel, plastic can be easily molded into different shapes and sizes. This made plastic one of the most desirable products for manufacturers and consumers. This led to plastic becoming an integral part of our everyday lives.
IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT
With the increase in plastic usage, its impact on the environment has grown gradually. But it wasn’t until the late 20th century, did people realize the detrimental effects. This led to environmental movements and awareness campaigns like Earth Day, Plastic-free July, and a global initiative called International Coastal Cleanup, and many more began highlighting the impacts of plastic pollution as a growing concern.
What happens to them when we throw them away? Do they impact our environment? When we throw plastic, most is in landfills, oceans, waste-energy facilities, incinerators, or litter in the streets, parks, or other places.
Studies like Plastic Debris in the World’s Ocean by Carpenter and Smith (1972) highlighted the accumulation of plastic debris in the marine environment. And the discovery of massive plastic patches in the ocean, like the great Pacific garbage patch in the North Pacific Ocean, much of which is not biodegradable, created a chaotic environment that created massive public attention and sparked discussions about the scale of plastic pollution. In the following years, many series and documentaries, like The Blue Planet and Addicted to Plastic, were also made to create awareness about the long-lasting effects of plastic pollution. The oceanic plastic debris and the landfills were filled with vast quantities of plastics. Plastics, due to their long-lasting resistance to biodegradation, created problems for waste management practices. Plastic often takes hundreds of years to decompose, needs vast amounts of space to store them, and prevents the generation of leachate, a liquid that forms as water, filters through the waste, and can potentially contaminate the soil and water, contributing to environmental concerns. Animal and human bodies can ingest the plastics through bioaccumulation, leading to severe consequences. Their microplastics are tiny plastic particles of less than 5mm in size that can be found everywhere around us, the air, water, and food, and can be easily ingested, which can lead to internal injuries, reduced feeding efficiency, disrupted reproductive patterns, and can cause inflammation and irritation. This may potentially damage DNA and promote cancer (Csatari and Willard). Moreover, plastic debris can transport invasive species and disrupt natural ecosystems. Plastic may seem like a 7-letter word, but the world beyond it is humungous. In this series of blogs, we delve into the world of plastics and try to understand it better to mitigate the losses caused by it.