What is plastic? The term “plastic” is used to refer to a category of materials called polymers. Polymermeans “of many parts.” It is made of long chains of molecules (Science History Institute).
Plastic is a word that originally meant “pliable and easily shaped.” (ScienceHistory Institute).
There are polymers of natural origin and from renewable sources such as cellulose. However, in the last century, humans have been learning and perfecting techniques capable of producing synthetic polymers, often using the plentiful carbon atoms provided by petroleum and other fossil fuels (Science History Institute).
The following video organized by National Geographic reveals we went from a natural and small-scale process for mass production of synthetic plastic that has been polluting our lives and the environment.
Plastic and its negative environmental impact
The big problem with petroleum-derived plastic is that it is not compostable. It is not biodegradable like natural materials.
Plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade. Unlike other materials derived from natural raw materials, synthetic plastic originated mainly from oil, is not consumed by bacteria.
Even if it is buried into the ground or mixed with compost, the plastic will not decompose because bacteria seem to be smarter than many humans, since they don’t consume plastic!
Bacteria seem to be smarter than many humans since they don’t consumeplastic!
What happens with plastic is that “Plastics degrade under UV radiation, or ocean punishment and the pieces get smaller and smaller until they become invisible, but are still part of our environment.” (DNews, Seeker, 2015)
So, only hundreds of years from now the plastic we use today will disappear from Earth.
Most of the plastic that we use today was designed to be disposable. The consumer uses it once and then throws it away. It is a severe problem, especially when we think about how much plastic packaging is discarded every day.
As you can see in the video below, the most common destinations for plastics we consume today are landfills, oceans, and recycling.
Health problems related to plastic
In addition to the obvious problems due to inadequate disposal and its frightening accumulation in the oceans and landfills, plastic causes several issues in the human body as well.
The research Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of Plastic Planet presents disturbing revelations about the destructive impact of plastic on human health.
The researchers note that “At every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses distinct risks to human health, arising from both exposures to plastic particles themselves and associated chemicals. The majority of people worldwide are exposed to multiple stages of this lifecycle “. (Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, 2016).
The damage occurs due to direct and environmental exposure from inhalation, ingestion, and contact with the skin in the different stages of production, consumption, and disposal of plastic.
This exposure affects among others “cardiovascular, renal, gastrointestinal, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems; impacts include cancers, diabetes, neuro-, reproductive, and developmental toxicity” as can be seen in the following figure extracted from the research (Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet,2016).
What are the alternatives?
Due to the problems related to the production, consumption, and disposal of plastic mentioned above, researchers have been trying to discover and re-discover materials.
In this context, bioplastics emerged promising to be more sustainable for the environment and less harmful to the human body.
But is this true? Check our sequence of articles to discover more about plastic, bioplastics, and its social and environmental impacts.