Plastic is more than an everyday material in the modern world. Everyone encounters it throughout the day, using products that are made from it almost constantly. It’s hard to imagine a world without plastic because of how ubiquitous it has become. There is not even another material that could serve as a stand-in for all of the purposes which it serves. There are of course a number of clear reasons for its widespread use like the low cost, versatility, durability, easiness of manufacture, and the fact that it is waterproof. Everyone is surrounded by plastic, but despite living their lives in the substance, very few people know anything about it.
What Exactly is Plastic?
The word plastic comes from the Greek plastikos which means “capable of being shaped or molded” and, in turn, plastos meaning “molded.” This definition does not apply literally to what now is commonly referred to as plastic, as there are number of materials which possess this quality.
There are a number of different kinds and subcategories of plastics which all share similar properties. They are typically a mixture of raw materials of high molecular mass and other substances. These “ingredients” are combined to form the synthetic material of plastic as the world know it. Many are made from renewable materials like polylactic acid from corn or cellulosics which come from cotton. Essentially these materials are produced from converting natural products or synthesis from chemicals which come from oil, natural gas, and coal.
The Rise of Plastics
Plastic has a longer history than the majority of the population realizes. Meso-Americans were using natural rubbers for shape balls and figurines as far back as 1600 BCE. Europeans also experimented treating with cow horns to create a translucent lantern for windows, but it wasn’t until the 1800s during the dawn of the industrial revolution that modern plastic, or “polystyrene” was discovered by the apothecary Eduard Simon. The development was rapid after this discovery. The year following saw people finding new methods for shaping and strengthening it as well as patents and business ventures. After World War I advancements made in chemical technology led to another explosion in new kinds of plastics as well as mass production in the 1940s and 1950s right in time for the Second World War. This is what helped to usher in the modern age of production as plastic became normalized in products that had previously always been formed from wood and metal.
Plastic and the Environment
Plastic has undoubtedly allowed people to reach the stage of development that they did in the past century, but the cost of this has increasingly become a conversation. This is of course in reference to the environmental impact. The first issue with plastic is that it resists most natural forms of decomposition, and when it does happen it is extremely slow. This results in an incredible amount of waste that will sit in landfills for millenniums. Some municipalities have taken to burning their plastics but toxic fumes and air pollution are a concern in these cases, complicating the matter.
Recycling has been looked to as the answer, although it is not as simple as it seems. Essentially recycling is melting down plastic based products so that the material can be reused and refashioned for another use. The issue with recycling plastics is the difficulty of sorting them properly. Plastics, unfortunately are not all interchangeable, so sorting through them is labour intensive, and much will be disposed of in the process. Luckily this is something some people are working on though. Automated machines are developed to make this process easier. These machines, while still have to be fine tuned, are easily maintained with the help of an electronic technician.
Finally, while many discuss what to do with the waste after the fact, people talk far less about the environmental impact that extracting the chemicals needed for plastic out of the earth has. Extracting crude oil from the earth’s crust is devastating to the surrounding environments, and then the energy used to produce the plastic from this material is great. It requires more energy many other materials like iron, glass, steel, and paper.
It doesn’t look like plastic’s reign will be ending anytime soon. Contemporary society is too reliant on it to be in a position to switch to other materials any time soon. While this might be a great goal to work towards gradually work towards, countries need to deal with the immediate need for responsible methods of plastic disposal. Recycling is the obvious choice, it just needs to be fine-tuned through automated sorting.