Plastic is all around us. It forms much of the packaging for our food and drink. For many of us, it is throughout our home, our workplace, our car, the bus we take to and from work. It can be in our clothing, eyeglasses, teeth, toothbrush, computers, phones, dishes, utensils, toys. The list goes on, especially when you look around and begin to notice the plastic in your life.
Plastic is versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, durable, strong and relatively inexpensive. It can be chemical resistant, clear or opaque, and practically unbreakable. These are wonderful useful qualities, and plastic plays many important roles in life on Earth, but the widespread use of plastic is also causing unprecedented environmental problems, and harbours serious health risks – especially for children. Plastic should be used wisely, with caution and only when suitable alternatives do not exist or are not available.
What is Plastic and Where did it Come From?
The term "plastic" derives from the Greek "plastikos," meaning fit for molding, and "plastos," meaning molded. In line with this root etymology, and in the broadest sense, a plastic is a material that at some stage in its manufacture is able to be shaped by flow such that it can be extruded, molded, cast, spun, or applied as a coating.
Plastics are polymers (meaning "many parts" in Greek), which are basically substances or molecules made up of many repeating molecular units, known as monomers (meaning "one part" in Greek). Monomers of hydrogen and carbon - hydrocarbons - are linked together in long chains to form plastic polymers. The raw hydrocarbon material for most synthetic plastics is derived from petroleum, natural gas or coal.
The length and structural arrangement of the polymer chains in part determines the properties of the plastic. Densely packed polymers can create a rigid plastic, whereas loosely spaced ones can lead to a softer more pliable plastic. However, the polymers alone rarely have the physical qualities to be of practical value, so most plastics contain various chemical additives to facilitate the manufacturing process or produce a particular desirable property, such as flexibility or toughness. As we discuss below, these chemical additives can be very problematic from a health perspective.
The first documented plastic was created in 1855 by the British inventor and metallurgist Alexander Parkes who used natural cellulose in combination with nitric acid and chemical solvents to create a plastic he patented as "Parkesine." The first totally human-made, completely synthetic plastic came about in 1907 when Belgian-born, New York-based Leo Baekeland used hydrocarbon chemicals he derived from coal to create Bakelite, which came to be used in radio and television casings, kitchenware and even toys.
And thus emerged the plastic era, especially taking off following World War II when all kinds of day to day household items began to be made of plastics.
Environmentally, plastic is a growing disaster. Most plastics are made from petroleum or natural gas, non-renewable resources extracted and processed using energy-intensive techniques that destroy fragile ecosystems.
The manufacture of plastic, as well as its destruction by incineration, pollutes air, land and water and exposes workers to toxic chemicals, including carcinogens.
Plastic packaging – especially the ubiquitous plastic bag – is a significant source of landfill waste and is regularly eaten by numerous marine and land animals, to fatal consequences. Synthetic plastic does not biodegrade. It just sits and accumulates in landfills or pollutes the environment. Plastics have become a municipal waste nightmare, prompting local governments all over the world to implement plastic bag, and increasingly polystyrene (styrofoam), bans.
Plastic pollution may not even be visible to the naked eye as research is showing that microscopic plastic particles are present in the air at various locations throughout the world and in all major oceans. Plastic is now ubiquitous in our terrestrial, aquatic and airborne environments - that is, it's everywhere.