Plastic - the material of a thousand uses
Plastic - a material that can be molded into solid objects - is one of the most used materials nowadays, surrounding us like never before. Our water bottles, lids for a to-go coffee, take away food, toothbrushes, q-tips, member cards, straws, shoes, laptops, buttons etc. Things that we might not pay much attention to.
Its popularity is mainly due to is its low cost, versatility, water tolerance alongside its ease of manufacture, since it consists any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic malleable compounds. However, plastics often contain other substances to which many are hazardous for living beings.
In economies that are developed, around one-third of plastic is used in packaging as well as in applications for buildings, such as pipes etc.
Plastics are used for things that we use on a daily basis without us even caring about where it all ends up. We just go about our day with no worries about the environment. We simply do not give this much thought due to the autopilot way of living. Because it is just so normal for us to do.
We might have been brought up to inherit these habits of plastic use. We might just be simply blind towards the fact that we are part of the reason why this planet is getting so unhealthy. Rare species are getting wiped out.
Plastic origin & life before plastic pollution
Plastic origins from hydrocarbons, which are to be found in oil and natural gas. When monomers are bonded together it becomes polymers and the different monomers combined together create different types of plastic - some being soft plastics, others hard types of plastic.
A short history of plastic:
- Around 1600 BC, Mesoamericans make items using natural rubber: balls, bands, and figurines. Later in Europe horn and tortoiseshell are used as plastics. Treated cattle horns are used as windows for lanterns in the Middle Ages. Bio-derived materials such as egg and blood proteins, which are organic polymers, are also used as early plastics.
- 1839: During the Industrial Revolution the industrial chemistry developed and many materials were reported. Charles Goodyear's discovery of vulcanization to thermoset materials derived from natural rubber also helped to accelerate the development of plastics. The process was patented in 1844.
- 1856: First man-made plastic, Parkesine, made from nitrocellulose, patented by Alexander Parkes in Birmingham. Could be hardened into a transparent and elastic material that could be molded when heated, and by incorporating pigments into the product, it could be made to resemble ivory.
- 1907 Bakelite, a mixture of mixture of phenol and formaldehyde, is invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian-born American living in New York, who at the same time also coined the term ‘plastics’. A hard material that can be molded when hot. Used for handles, phones, autoparts, furniture and even jewelry. The invention of Bakelite led to a whole class of plastics, phenolic resins, with similar properties.
- 1930s Wallace Carruthers invented a plastic polymer from the condensation of adipic acid and a certain type of diaminohexane monomers that could be drawn out into strong fibers just like silk became known as nylon.
After World War II early plastics became widespread, following World War II, which eventually lead to the creation of many other plastics, which are known as Dacron, Styrofoam, polystyrene, polyethylene and vinyl.
Earlier plastic is an easy choice of material to use due to its lightness, shape possibilities and inexpensively. However, our use of plastic has taken its toll on our planet adding unnecessary toxins to our everyday life and for the coming generations.
But how was life before plastic pollution? How did people survive? How did they eat, drink, etc.? How did we even live without plastics? Will understanding this aspect perhaps give us insights on how we could live with less plastics in the future too?
Well, they used other available materials - foods were weighed and packaged in paper bags. Glass bottles were used for drinks and the milkman would deliver milk to the door, then return the next day to pick up the empty bottles to reuse them. Even meat was wrapped in paper. Glass containers with jam would be saved for later storage use. Basically, most food was homemade, unprocessed food.
Furthermore, the majority of the fresh foods were grown locally and available seasonally. Usually, you could buy food in big containers, e.g. dried foods, which could be stored for quite some time.
As mentioned before plastic is light, easily shaped with an excellent finishing, strong, and inexpensive. Its ability to guard against contamination makes it extremely useful in sterile medical environments such as hospitals and it has also been used for storage of food and drinks as well as useful for holding dangerous household products such as bleach, ammonia, and other caustic cleaners.
Additionally, many life-lengthening and even lifesaving inventions have been developed within the field of medicine. Amazing innovations such as the artificial heart, plastic gloves, IV-bags, syringes, knee- and hip replacements, pacemakers etc.
The chemicals that are used for plastic production are steady and slowly building up in our bodies and in our environment. We’re only beginning to understand the serious consequences these substances have on our health.
One of the most disturbing effects of plastics is that plastics pollute sources of water by seeping into the groundwater. Humans, animals and plants need clean water to live a healthy life.
Plastic from inland can travel far to the coastline by rainwater that ushers mismanaged waste from land into local water, which feeds into larger rivers that run into oceans.
Almost 700 species, including endangered ones, have been reported to be affected by plastics. Many more animals are probably harmed invisibly, due to the fact that they’re now eating microplastics; marine species of all sizes, from plankton to whales and further up in the food chain. This means the microplastics will eventually end up inside of us if we eat animals.
Another cost from the huge amounts of plastics is the introduction of inorganic materials in the soil as well as the production of harmful gasses and toxic fumes in the atmosphere, when burned. They may contain compounds that are harmful to people and animals and may even cause diseases.
When plastics are burned or disposed of they also pollute the air and land. They have a huge impact on the environment and have been declared among the most impactful of pollutants on the planet.
The food chain is naturally getting affected by pollution from plastics, and amongst the harmful effects of plastics is the disruption of the natural order of feeding.
Sadly, a lot of plastic waste go to dumpsites that you’ll never even hear about. Think of rivers and fields full of plastics - landscapes made of plastic waste.
Microbeads = micro-plastic particles
Microbeads are tiny plastic particles found in many beauty products (look for “polyethylene” on ingredient list). These are NOT biodegradable! Each time you use these kinds of scrubs to wash your face or body, the particles flow down the drain and into our sewer system. Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to filter out microbeads. A single plastic particle can absorb up to 1,000,000 times more toxic chemicals than the water around it.
This means they end up swirling around the world’s oceans. Sea creatures absorb or eat microbeads and they are passed along the marine food chain. Humans are at the top of this food chain, so it’s likely that we are absorbing some of the chemicals from the food we eat.
A tube of facewash can contain over 330,000 microbeads. This means billions of plastic microbeads are flowing into our global waterways.
1,147 personal cleansing products contain micro-plastic particle abrasives (microbeads), employed as exfoliant.
Are you out of the danger-zone with BPA free plastic?
Plastics come with serious health risks, e.g. cancer and abnormal growth. Different studies have shown that some of these may cause physical harm, although the ingredients differ in the many types of polymers.
The most commonly known sinner, BPA, has been linked so closely with cancer that many manufacturers have decided to remove it from their plastic items and attached stickers, while proclaiming them to be BPA free. Other studies link BPA to reproductive problems like infertility and fetal abnormalities.
But it doesn’t end here, because even though BPA is eliminated from plastics, there are other types in the same family that most likely have similar effects and are considered to be most dangerous to pregnant women, fetuses and infants.
Still, there hasn’t been enough studies yet to know if the plastics used in medical innovations potentially can leach any chemicals into the body or even have other long-term effects.
Here you can see a list of the plastics and the classified hazard levels:
1. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) (high hazard level)
Bags for bedding, shrink wrap, deli meat wrap, plastic toys, tablecloths and blisterpacks.
→ Contains endocrine-disrupting phthalates.
2. Polystyrene (PS) (high hazard level)
Used to make cups, plates, bowls, take-out containers, meat trays, packaging materials.
→ Leaches styrene, which can damage your nervous system and is linked to cancer.
3. Other (O) (BPA, Polycarbonate and LEXAN) (high hazard level)
Huge reusable water bottles, including some citrus juice and ketchup bottles, oven-baking bags, nylon, fiberglass, CDs, baby bottles, barrier layers in custom packaging.
→ Leaches hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA), which is linked to infertility and other health problems.
4. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET/PETE) (moderate hazard level)
Bottles for water, soft drinks, juice, mouthwash, sports drinks and condiments.
→ Leaches bromine a central nervous system depressant.
5. High-Density Polyethylene (HCPE) (low hazard level)
Used for milk, water and juice bottles, as well as bottles for cleaning supplies and shampoo, cereal box liners.
→ Releases estrogenic chemicals.
6. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) (low hazard level)
Used in bags for bread, newspapers, fresh produce, household garbage and frozen foods, paper milk cartons and hot and cold beverage cups.
→ Releases estrogenic chemicals.
7. Polypropylene (PP) (low hazard level)
Used to make containers for yogurt, deli foods, medications and takeout meals.
How long will plastic be on our planet?
Only a small amount of the plastic waste is recycled because there are various types of plastic with different chemical compositions, and recycled plastics can be contaminated by the mixing of types as well as contaminated by materials such as paper and ink.
First of all, you must realize the duration plastics have. It differs from the type of plastics, but the following should give you an idea of the problem of how long it takes before it’s gone:
- Plastic coated paper = 3 months
- Balloons = 6 months
- Milk carton = 5 years
- Plastic bags = 10-20 years
- Styrofoam = 50 years
- Rubber boot sole = 50-80 years
- Beverage holder = 400 years
- Disposable diapers = 450 years
- Plastic bottles = 450 years
According to The World Economic Forum, plastic production has exploded over the last half-century, growing from 16.5 million tons in 1964 to 343 million tons in 2014; it is projected to double by 2036.
What can YOU do?
Refuse single-use plastic cutlery, straws and other disposable plastics. Bring along your own set of reusable coffee mugs, cutlery, steel straws and cotton shopping bag.
- Think about your beauty routine: Q-tips made of paper and organic cotton, organic reusable cotton rounds, get some vegan castile soap bars for hand, body and hair.
- Clean your house with DIY cotton cloths. There are often microplastics in the ones you buy.
- Participate in plastic cleanups in your local communities.
- Write companies and suggest they go plastic-free - or suggest an alternative as a solution.
- Get a guppy friend bag to prevent plastics to leak out when washing - http://guppyfriend.com
- Glass or stainless steel straws are designed to last, are easy to clean with a straw cleansing brush and dishwasher safe.
- Store your food in glass jars or in cotton bags and bring the bags when shopping fruit and vegetables.
- Familiarize yourself with plastic recycling in your community.
- A little can go a long way, so just being more aware of your own plastic consumption will help you navigate.
- Telling people about your new awareness or your new routines, can inspire your friends to do the same.
The alternative products are out there, but that we need to make a move and claim eco-friendly alternatives for our food packaging etc.
Time is running out for humans and animals, but not for plastic - let’s change that!
THINK AGAIN, EARTH FRIEND <3
This Month's Writer is the talented & Dear Friend:
Ninna Helene Meacock (b. 1986) holds a Master of Arts in Cultural Communication with a focus on Urbanity & Aesthetics from Copenhagen University, Denmark & Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.
She loves to put all sorts of music on (everything from bluegrass and baroque to dark synthwave and 60s psych) and cook plant-based food from scratch.
She also enjoys writing and creating art in her home studio. When she’s not biking around Copenhagen, she enjoys travelling the world and experiencing different cultures.