Plastics 101: All About Plastic by National Geographic

First seen in the 1950s, plastic has been expanding steadily since its widespread use. Today, more than 300 million tonnes are produced annually. And it is still growing, especially in developing countries

Plastic owes its popularity not only to its low cost of production but also to its many practical features: lightness, acid resistance, and molality. Besides, the latter property encourages technological innovation and – especially in the medical, real estate construction, aeronautical and automotive industries – leads to new solutions, improvements and improved comfort.

However, large scale consumption of plastics causes many problems. Most plastics end up in the trash. Non-biodegradable, regular plastics continue to contaminate the environment for decades or even centuries if not disposed of properly. Already today, plastic mountains are piling up in our landfills and nature. With the increasing use of plastics, there is an urgent need to develop comprehensive and forward-looking waste management.

Here, in this video about Plastic by National Geographic explains the ages of plastic use since its beginning time around the late 50s and highlights the adverse effects of single-use plastics on the health global environment.

Moreover, this video also talks on more recent developments, including two Stanford studies that have shown how the Mealworms, darkling beetle larvae. Can you believe it? These larvae can eat 34-39 milligrams of styrofoam per day! Furthermore, the Galleria mellonella moth caterpillars and the wax worms can chemically break down the polyethylene plastic when they consume it.

How Do You Make Plastic?

Plastic is made originally from petroleum. Once extracted from the ground and stored in large tanks, crude oil is transformed in a refinery: it is said to be refined. It is first heated to 370 °C before being sent to a large steel tower called a “distillation tower”.

On each floor of this tower, different products are extracted: the heaviest is at the bottom, the lightest is at the top. At the bottom of the tower, we collect the bitumen used to make the roads. On the 1st floor, we recover the fuel which will be used for heating. On the 2nd floor, we get kerosene for aeroplanes. It is on the 3rd floor that the naphtha is extracted: it will be transformed into plastics in a petrochemical plant. But also in fertilizers, perfumes, or medicines. On the 4th floor, gasoline for cars is recovered and, finally, on the top floor, gases used for transport or heating.

You can also make biodegradable plastic from potatoes or corn. Thus, a one-hectare cornfield can harvest 8 tonnes of corn kernels with which we can produce 1.8 tonnes of bioplastic. We also know how to make plastic with milk. This plastic has the best advantage of not causing allergies.

Nowadays, more and more organic plastics are produced from renewable raw materials. In industrial mass production, the most common plastics are Polyethylene, Polypropylene, PVC, Polystyrene, PET, and Polyurethane.

When Plastic Replaces Rubber?

The term “plastic” is a clumsy way of describing polymers. Usually derived from petroleum or natural gas, they are long-chain molecules, each chain comprising hundreds of thousands of bonds. These large chains allow interesting physical properties, such as stiffness, strength, and properties imparting to small molecules.

The word “plastic” is a diminutive of the term “thermoplastic“, which refers to polymeric materials that can be formed and deformed by heat.

The polymer industry as we know it was pioneered in the 1930s by Wallace Carothers within the Dupont Company. His meticulous work on polyamides notably led to the commercialization of nylon, which replaced during the war the silk used to make women’s stockings. And when other natural materials were not found during World War-II, scientists looked for synthetic polymers to “fill in the gaps”.

The Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia having for example caused the end of the rubber supply, researchers set out in search of a synthetic polymer with equivalent properties.

How Plastic Has Invaded Our Lives

Plastic is now the third most man-made material behind cement and steel! But how did we get there?

Since its inception, during and after World War II, the polymer industry – those long-chain synthetic molecules mistakenly referred to as “plastics” – has risen rapidly. In the year 2015, over and above 320 million tonnes of polymers (excluding fibers) were manufactured worldwide.

Until about five years ago, the creators of products made from polymers cared little about what would happen to their products once their originally proposed life cycle was over. Nevertheless, the situation is improving and attention will be drawn to this issue in the coming years.

We Should Worry About

Nowadays, we produce more than 350 million tons of plastic each year, which can end up as pollutants attacking our planet’s natural environments and ocean-water.

As for the marine litter, we see that it is mainly of maritime origin in the Atlantic (fishing and Maritime transport area) and land in the Mediterranean (tourism, urbanization). Six million tonnes of debris are released each year by ships (including containers, etc.). In the North Sea, 90% of the trash encountered is plastic packaging (bags, bottles).

Depending on their properties and their thickness, these wastes have duration of multiple life: 1 to 5 years for wire nylon, 1 to 20 years for plastic packaging for up to 450 years for plastic bottles, and 600 years for nylon fishing lines.

Though some plastic products have a good chance of ending up in the trash right away, especially the packaging, which is immediately thrown away. Results from global clean-up campaigns show that debris floating in seas often comes from the food and packaging industries. Some of the most common are plastic bottles and bags, straws, lids and food packaging.

Many worldwide nation’s laws and regulations and various NGOs are committed to protect human health and the environment against the potential risks of chemicals and to strengthen the competitiveness of the chemical industry. Moreover, such regulations also recommend alternative methods for assessing the danger of certain substances with the idea of ​​reducing the use of animal testing.

However, there is no mandatory declaration for plastics and their additives and producers keep a secret about the composition of their products: thus, consumers often have great difficulty in distinguishing harmful products from harmless products and to check whether the producer has respected the regulations concerning the prohibition or restriction of products. We should think and worry about it for our future generation as well as the planet’s environment.

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