Plastics have long been considered the material of the future. Science fiction, for example, is dominated by perfectly sculptured starships and cityscapes that would probably be made of (and furnished with) superplastic.
While a world made of plastic might sound like fantasy, in reality we already live in a time where it’s almost impossible to avoid contact with plastic. Billions of tons of plastics have been manufactured since the 1950s, and it’s estimated that about 1 million plastic bottles are bought each minute.
These are probably put into one of the over 500 billion plastic bags made a year. Plastics have become widely used for good reason.
Although there are a wide range of different plastics each with their own unique properties and ingredients, they all share some similar traits. The majority are resistant to chemical and environmental decay, possess incredible strength and/or flexibility, are pliable in a heated form and most can be recycled.
Plastics are so efficient when used in packing and construction applications that they have largely replaced other materials like wood in many situations, and they can also increase the fuel efficiency of travel by being much lighter than alternatives. Due to their resilient nature, plastic materials tend to be very long-lasting.
This can be both a bonus and a downside, however, as plastic pollution is beginning to build up in huge amounts around the world.
It’s an ancient human tradition to throw ingredients together and see what happens – from paper, to dyes, to concrete – most modern inventions rely on the trials and errors of countless curious humans throughout history. Humans have been experimenting with natural forms of plastics for thousands of years. Early cultures quickly discovered resins, rubber, waxes and other natural moldable polymers that filled a variety of uses.
In the early to mid 1900s, synthetic plastic production really took off as chemical companies became more proficient at fine-tuning their processes. This eventually led to the various forms of plastic that we use today.
Modern plastics are mostly synthesized from oil, natural gas or coal, which is distilled and split apart into various base constituents depending on the plastic’s final desired form.
These building blocks are then combined with a variety of chemical agents to add flexibility, UV protection, texture and other properties. The amount of petroleum it takes to make around 150 plastic bags could power a car from Sylva to Asheville.
Although the majority of plastics are able to be recycled, unfortunately very few actually make it to recycling centers instead of landfills or ditches by the side of the road. This is a pretty serious problem, as aquatic environments have proven especially susceptible to plastic pollution buildup and the problems that come along with it.
As plastics are left exposed to the environment, they slowly break down over hundreds of years due to rain, sunlight, wind and other environmental forces. Because of the inherent strength of plastic, usually this just means it is broken down into smaller and smaller pieces.
These chunks then eventually find themselves washed into waterways, where they collect into massive islands of trash and/or are consumed by aquatic life. As they break down, some of these plastics might also hemorrhage additives and other chemicals into the environment.
Science is still in the dark about many of the long term effects that ingesting small pieces of plastic and/or additives has on the body of the consumer, however it is no secret that we already ingest significant amounts of microplastics every day.
Do us all a favor and pick up any carelessly disposed plastic that is within your reach.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.