Facts That Figure: Plastic

Facts That Figure: Plastic

By C.G. Hoffman

How would we live without plastic? We sleep on plastic-filled pillows, sit on plastic chairs, and tote around plastic devices glued to our ears in order not to miss a microsecond of what’s happening in the world. Modern living seems impossible without plastic, but the sky-high piles in our landfills and the ever-increasing amounts of toxic microplastics that the average human consumes are not all positive.

Since necessity is the mother of invention, plastics came about because of a pressing need. In the 1800s, due to overhunting and industrialization, animal-derived materials started becoming increasingly harder to find. Elephants were facing extinction due to the high demand for ivory, which was used for piano keys, knife handles, and many other items. Turtles also faced the same fate, with their shells popularly used for combs. Inventors started experimenting with different materials to meet the public’s demand for more goods.

• The first manufactured plastic was invented by Englishman Alexander Parkes in 1862 and marketed as Parkesine. It was offered as a cheap alternative to ivory or tortoiseshell.

The Celluloid Manufacturing Company was founded in 1872 in Newark, New Jersey, and one of the first products it manufactured with the new plastic material was denture plates. It soon became popular for various products, such as shirt collars, toys, and combs. Most importantly, it soon started being used for film, and the rise of the film industry came soon after, using celluloid film.

Belgian Leo Baekeland patented the first fully synthetic plastic in 1907. He combined formaldehyde and phenol under heat and pressure and called his product Bakelite. Bakelite made possible a variety of cheaply made goods, previously considered luxuries, but now affordable for the average person. Cameras, telephones, and radios made of the new Bakelite material became affordable and popular.

The rise of the petroleum and chemical industries in the 20th century produced an abundance of waste by-products, one of which was ethylene gas. Combined with other chemicals, this created the forerunner of today’s most popular plastic material: polyethylene, which was strong, flexible, and heat resistant.

Plastic's useful and durable properties also make it problematic for the environment. Some plastics can last for thousands of years before degrading. Plastic degradation produces an even bigger headache: a proliferation of microplastics that has infested our oceans, air, and ecosystems and eventually found its way into our bodies.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a floating island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii. It is so enormous that it is visible from space and is about three times the size of France! Its weight is estimated to be about 100,000 tons, which is about the same as 740 Boeing 777’s. It is estimated that it would take 67 ships one whole year to clean up 1% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

We may laugh at plastic bag bans and kvetch about impossible-to-drink from paper straws, but the issue of microplastics is no laughing matter. Microplastics are everywhere, contaminating the oceans, the fish we eat, the food that is fed to farm animals, and the water we drink. The average person can consume 5 grams of microplastics weekly, which boils down to about a credit card a week. Talk about a credit problem! And they are making us increasingly sicker: Microplastics have been linked to serious health issues such as endocrine disruption, weight gain, insulin resistance, decreased reproductive health, and cancer.

• Because we now know of plastics' harmful effects, scientists have been working for years to produce plastic that is naturally derived and strong but will break down over time without polluting the environment. Some plastics are being produced from seaweed, methane, mushrooms, and even milk!

The problem with plastic is mainly a waste management problem. The more old plastic gets recycled, the less new plastic is produced. Although Americans are encouraged to recycle, plastic recycling still lags way behind, with only 6% of it being recycled and an additional 300 million tons of new plastic being produced each year. Although you may feel virtuous by scrupulously separating your plastic and only putting it into the blue recycling bin, your efforts might not make such a difference after all since most of it ends up in a landfill anyway.

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