Evolution of plastics in the modern world

Beni Restea

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It’s everywhere. In the diaper, you use on your newborn baby, in the laptop used every day, in the car you drive yourself to and from work, in your food, and in your body. So next time you hear someone say that we are drowning our planet in plastic understand that that’s true. It’s not an exaggeration, it’s not someone being negative, it’s the cold hard truth.

We encounter plastic everywhere around us and most of the time, we aren’t even aware of it because we don’t think about it. As a close friend of mine said when discussing pollution, “ignorance is bliss”. The only thing that saved her from being shaken into understanding was the internet connection we had between us. I can’t understand how people can choose to be ignorant of these types of topics.

Well, we don’t have the luxury of being ignorant of something that we are directly responsible for that’s causing serious harm to our planet. Yes, you, the person reading this article, did not create plastic, but you sure buy things that contain plastics like your clothes, your household things, your groceries, and yes, your phone.

“But it’s not our fault … ” I hear you say “They make a new one every year and I need a new one every year.” Well, the truth is that you don’t. While a phone doesn’t work for decades, it does work for over a year. If your iPhone doesn’t then maybe you should change the brand. Ever think of that? But I digress. Let’s get back to the material that brings so much comfort to our lives that we don’t even care if it slowly gets into everything including our bodies.

Throughout this article will shed some light on plastics, what they are, where they came from and the immense negative impact it has on our planet.

What are Plastics?

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The word “plastic” originally was applied to something that was pliant and easily shaped. Only recently has it become commonly used for a wide variety of materials known as polymers. Polymer means “of many parts”, which is quite fitting as these materials are made out of long chains of molecules. That’s the basic definition of plastic but how is it made.

While nature did give us a natural alternative to the human-made plastic we use today, we slowly took it out of the composition. Cellulose was originally used to create polymers, which is a material made up of the walls of plant cells. You can find it in clothing fabrics like rayon, viscose, and, the least polluting option, lyocell. Still, humans thought it necessary to create a synthetic alternative. Why? My bet is increased consumption, profits for those that made it, and consumerism.

A Brief History of Plastics

As it so happens, an American inventor deserves the praise and glory for producing the first synthetic polymer that paved the way for the planet’s most polluting product. As mentioned above, while cellulose could be used to make plastics, synthetic polymers weren’t limited to cellulose. That’s why carbon atoms started being introduced into polymers that come from polluting petroleum and other fossil fuels.

What made these synthetic polymers so appealing was their strength, lightweightedness, and flexibility, but their characteristics came from their much longer chains of atoms. That extended chain of atoms makes it so plastic. It’s what makes these synthetic polymers so useful as they are easy to shape, create and manipulate, making them an essential part of our lives. Let’s see how this “miraculous” material came to be and how it took over the planet.

The beginning of Plastics

In 1869, an American man by the name of John Wesley Hyatt invented the world’s first synthetic polymer. The story goes that he was inspired by a firm from New York that offered a $10,000 prize to whoever could give them an alternative for ivory. The world needed ivory because we needed billiards. If that doesn’t make every climate activist’s skin crawl, I don’t know what will, but again, I digress.

So this company needed ivory and the slaughter of wild elephants wasn’t enough so they needed someone to give them a replacement. Hyatt realized that if he treats cellulose extracted from cotton fiber with camphor, a substance results that can be molded into whatever shape needed. This revolutionary discovery meant that mankind was no longer limited by what nature gave us because that was no longer considered enough. The fact of the matter remains. We use so much wood, metal, stone, bone, tusk, and horn that as the population of the planet grew, the planet couldn’t possibly resolve all our needs and greed.

The irony is that plastics started as a protector of the natural world and wound up destroying it. Synthetic cellulose was praised as a savior of elephants and tortoises across the planet and now it kills them and us. It was also a lot easier for wealth to be gained with the easy access to this revolutionary material and this was only the beginning of the plastic revolution.

Plastic in Our Modern World

The second inventor that must be praised for his incredible work in ensuring our entire ecosystem’s pollution was Leo Baekeland who, in 1907 invented Bakelite. This new type of plastic didn’t contain any natural material at all as the first fully synthetic plastic ever made. Baekeland was on the search for a synthetic alternative to shellac, the natural insulator for electricity as the US needed to sustain its growing electricity infrastructure.

Unlike shellac or synthetic polymer, this compound was more durable, heat resistant, and suitable for mass mechanical production. Dubbed the “material of a thousand uses”, bakelite could be molded and shaped into virtually anything giving its uses endless possibilities. Together, these two inventions gathered investors from across the country including major chemical companies like 3M and DuPont as the race for more polymers began. Even if Hyatt and Baekeland focused their research on specific properties, the rest of the programs tried to develop new types of plastics, not because they were needed. They invented new materials even if they didn’t have uses for them. They’ll find uses. There was no purpose to them but the desire to have more types of it. So new types of polluting plastics were invented just for the sake of it.

With the beginning of the Second World War, plastic applicability rose to new heights as industrial might proved to be just as important for winning the war as military might. The Nylon invented by Wallace Carothers in 1935 could be used in parachutes, body armor, ropes, gear liners, and much more. Plexiglas became a substitute for aircraft windows and like that, plastic showed off its adaptability. Production of plastics increased 300% during World War II. Once the war was over, plastics took over every other natural material across products, markets, industries, and use. People started to see a utopic future from plastics as it was inexpensive to make and there were no limits to how much we could make. Or so we thought.

Negative Impact of Plastics

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During the 1960s, plastic debris was first observed in the oceans and the environmental issues that came from plastics became evident. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” brought to light the dangers of chemical pesticides used in agriculture in 1962. Then 1969 came with a major oil spill off the California coast and the Cuyahoga River from Ohio caught fire due to immense pollution levels. That brief summary of that one decade should have made people aware of exactly how dangerous this issue is, but here we are today.

On April 28th, 2022 California’s attorney general started an investigation into the petrochemical and fossil fuel industries. The reason, if you haven’t guessed it already is the role they have played in causing and accelerating the plastic pollution crisis across the world. The ones that were praised in the past for creating the most versatile material that was celebrated at one point for saving the environment are now accused of global pollution. We’ll see how that whole situation goes, but so far, California is leading the way in the war against pollution.

Conclusion

With approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastics currently around the world in one form or another, it’s about time we stop creating them. It doesn’t biodegrade, only turns into microplastics that enter our food chain. Over 90% can not be recycled or destroyed in any way that won’t cause further harm to the planet so the need to stop making more of this stuff is of the utmost importance. Of the 8.3 million tons of plastics ever created, 6.3 billion tons are trash and much of that is in our oceans. We have islands made out of plastics and guys like Jeff Bezos talk about ways to take everything pollutant, industries included, and take them somewhere off-planet.

Hearing stuff like that from the richest man alive who wound up being as rich due to the biggest shipping company, a company that is unsustainable not only due to pollution (shipping, transportation), unnecessary amounts of packaging (did you see how much cardboard, plastic bag, bubble wrap comes with one mug?!), but also the lack of safety measures they did not take during the 2021 tornado that destroyed one of their warehouses, one can’t help but want to drown out every word that comes out of his mouth. No disrespect but why should someone who made millions of dollars on the backs of those less fortunate have anyone’s time of day.

I fail to end this article on a light note, but I don’t find plastics a light subject. If you are enraged, troubled, angered, or bothered by what you just read, this, unfortunately, is only the tip of the iceberg. Any questions or opinions can be shared in the comment section below, I’m more than happy to shed more light on the subject. You can make sure that more people are aware of this topic if you Like & Share this article with friends and family, but also on your social media groups. This needs to stop and companies and businesses need to be held accountable.

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Beni Restea's experience in marketing and web development took him a long way, as he acquired the necessary skills to be a professional in digital marketing for the real estate industry. Through his work, he managed to develop exclusive content for RealEstateAgent.com, which is informative, trendy and real estate related. Through his experience as a search engine optimization specialist, he manages to significantly increase traffic to the website by sharing quality content with the world throughout the internet.

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