PLASTICS—BENEFIT or BAIN
INDESTRUCTIBLE. That was the praise attached to the plastics industry products. Who could argue with a product that would last forever? Not expensive and never having to be replaced. And it is quite obvious that nobody thought of the future, and I emphasize nobody.
Plastics are polymers that abound in nature and cellulose, the material that makes up the walls of plants, and are a common well-known polymer, but the plastics we know and use are synthetic polymers and use the plentiful carbon atoms provided by petroleum and other fossil fuels. Synthetic polymers are man-made of long chains of atoms, arranged in repeating units, often much longer than those found in nature. Their length and patterns make them strong and lightweight and flexible and a boon to the grocery store industry world-wide and ironically, they were a substitute for ivory to save the existence of wild elephants whose trunks provided the ivory for billiard balls. The invention was by John Wesley Hyatt who was paid $10,000 for his brilliant idea and by using cotton fibre with camphor a plastic was produced, to imitate natural substances like tortoiseshell, horn, linen and ivory. Nature only supplied so much wood, metal, stone, bone, tusk and horn . Humans could provide new materials. Plastics could protect the natural world from human need. In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic. It had no molecules found in nature. It was marketed as “the material of a thousand uses”. Bakelite could be shaped or moulded into anything and provided endless possibilities. Major chemical companies sought new plastics for new uses. Develop the plastics and find the new uses later.
But it was the second world war that caused the U.S. to expand development of the plastics industry. The U.S. needed to preserve natural resources and trade was hindered by the ocean wars and the use of submarines to sink transport vessels. Shipping was difficult and Nylon was developed as a synthetic silk for parachutes, ropes, body armour, helmet liners and more. Plexiglas was the alternative for aircraft windows and quickly the plastic production in the U.S. increased by 300%. Plastics took the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging and wood in furniture and the world was not using up natural resources. It was the pollution-free way to go or so the world thought. How naïve!!
Have you seen what is doing in our big grocery stores. Everything is covered in plastic. Plastic bottles abound because they don’t break, meat and fish are sold in plastic bags, potatoes and onions come in plastic bags. Bags that never deteriorate and are used by millions of households to put out our garbage. The ultimate symbol of the problem of plastics is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,, which is described as a swirl of plastic garbage, the size of Texas, floating in the Pacific Ocean
Despite growing mistrust plastics are critical to modern life. They are involved with computers, cell phones many advances in modern medicine. They are used as insulators and in transportation and their use raised the standard of living of millions of people.
Plastics have a place in modern life and scientists are working to make them more environmentally friendly. Other scientists are working to make them truly biodegradable and to make recycling more efficient and some scientists are involved in a process to convert plastics back into fossil fuels. Plastics are part of our modern life, not perfect by a long shot, but it is too late to do without them.