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Sustainability Guides:

The Truth about Plastics

by The House of Pillows Editorial Writers

Have you ever wondered why almost every commercialised product is packaged in Plastic? Why companies don’t use paper, glass, or any other more sustainable option for packaging their products? There is a reason: it is super cheap, and in almost unlimited supply.

What is plastic? Who invented it?

Plastic is a material consisting of any wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic malleable organic compounds, that can be made into solid objects.

The world’s first fully synthetic plastic was bakelite, invented in New York in 1907 by Leo Baekeland who coined the term ‘plastics’.  Many chemists have contributed to the materials science of plastics, including Nobel laureate Hermann Staudinger who has been called “the father of polymer chemistry” and Herman Mark, known as “the father of polymer physics”.

How is plastic made?

Plastics are produced by the conversion of natural products, or by the synthesis from primary chemicals, generally coming from oil, natural gas, or coal. Most plastics are a by-product of petroleum manufacture – made from the sludge left after fractionating off the gasolene.

It all starts with the raw materials. The main types of raw materials used to make plastic are fossil products, such as crude oil and natural gas. These contain compounds called hydrocarbons, that can be used to make monomers, which can then be processed to make plastic. This is usually done by cracking, a process in which the hydrocarbons are either heated to extreme temperatures, or chemically treated to break them down into monomers.

The second stage of plastic production is called Polymerization/Polycondensation. Once the monomers are extracted, they have to be chemically treated to make them bond together and form long polymer chains. This is normally done either through polymerization, or polycondensation. In the first process, the monomers are mixed with another chemical that acts as a catalyst, and causes them to combine with each other, forming a resin. In the second, the monomers are processed in such a way that they combine with each other and release a byproduct like water.

During either process, different types of monomers are usually mixed together to form resin with different characteristics. They may also be mixed with other additives, like flame retardants or plasticizers, which make the end product less brittle. The resulting resins from both processes can be sold in liquid form or ground down into pellets or powder and then sold to plastic manufacturing companies.

Then, the polymers can then be processed into either thermoplastics or thermosets. Thermoplastics melt when they reach a certain temperature, but are hard when they cool. Thermosets get harder as they get warmer, but can only be heated up and allowed to set once. If they’re heated again, they burn.

Thermosets can be molded as well, though the molds are often pressurized to encourage the polymers to link more closely, which makes the end product more durable. They are also sometimes treated with a chemical before molding, to make the polymers combine thoroughly. Thermoplastics are usually used to make things that need to be strong, but are made for consumer use, like phones and sports equipment. Thermosets are used to make stronger things like machine or vehicle parts. This type of plastic can also be coated onto other materials, like paper or fabric, and then heated and pressed together to make fuses, gaskets, and electronic circuit boards in a process called laminating.

The supply of plastic, vastly out numbers the demand for it. Because the demand for gasoline/petrol is so high, so is the supply for plastics, since it is a byproduct. Since the supply of plastic exceeds the demand for it, the price drops until supply meets demand, and that is why plastic is so cheap, and that’s why companies keep using it to package their products.

This is why investing in renewable energy is so important: it’s not just about changing the way people travel in cars, it’s about changing our entire ecosystem. It’s not difficult to imagine how much less plastic we would have. If suddenly the demand for petrol and gas decreased, so could the supply of plastics.

 

What are the effects of plastic waste?

1/ Upsets natural food chains. Because it comes in sizes large and small, plastics even affect the world’s tiniest organisms such as plankton. When these organisms become poisoned due to plastic ingestion, this causes problems for the larger animals that depend on them for food. This can cause a whole slew of problems, each step further along the food chain. Plus, it means that plastic are present in the fish that many people eat everyday.

2/ Pollutes groundwater. Water conservation is already a concern in places ranging from California to parts of India, but the world’s water is in great danger because of leaking plastics and waste. If you’ve ever seen a garbage dump, imagine what happens every time it rains – then imagine that being in your drinking water. Groundwater and reservoirs are susceptible to leaking environmental toxins. Most of the litter and pollution affecting the world’s oceans also derives from plastics. This has had terrible consequences on many marine species, which can lead to consequences for those that eat fish and marine life for nutrients – including people.

3/ Land pollution. When plastic is dumped in landfills, it interacts with water and form hazardous chemicals. When these chemicals seep underground, they degrade the water quality. Wind carries and deposits plastic from one place to another, increasing the land litter. It can also get stuck on poles, traffic lights, trees, fences, tower etc. and animals that may come in the vicinity and might suffocate them to death.

4/ Air pollution. Burning of plastic in the open air, leads to environmental pollution due to the release of poisonous chemicals. The polluted air when inhaled by humans and animals affect their health and can cause respiratory problems.

5/ Plastic is poisonous. Man artificially makes plastic by using a number of toxic chemicals. Therefore, use of and exposure to plastics has been linked to a number of health concerns affecting people around the world. The processes of making, storing, disposing of, and just being around plastics can be extremely harmful to living things.

6/ It’s expensive… to clean up. It costs millions of dollars each year to clean affected areas after exposure, not to mention the loss of life to plants, animals, and people. As land becomes more valuable, just finding a place to put garbage is becoming a problem in many parts of the world. Plus, excess pollution has lead to decreased tourism in affected areas, significantly impacting those economies.

 

What can I do to help reduce the amount of plastic pollution I produce?

 

Get involved. Sharing the message about better sustainability is so important, and why building communities who want to make a difference, can change the way people think.

One thing you can do to help make small positive changes in your everyday life, is to support Zero Waste businesses, and businesses who put the effort into making waste-free, and biodegradable packaging. For now, ecofriendly businesses are “niche”, because only a small portion of the world cares about reducing their plastic waste.

Buy zero waste. Buy items that aren’t made, packaged or lined with plastic. Stop buying synthetic products, and choose natural and organic instead. Stop putting your money into polluting products.

Supporting businesses who promote sustainable lifestyles is a way to tell all commerce in general, “Yes, I’ll buy one product over another because it’s more sustainable”.

There has been a lot of positive changes over the past few years, but there is still a long way to go before all companies start choosing a more sustainable path.

Share this post with as many people as possible! Live green, people! 🙂

 

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