With 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year - a near equivalent to the weight of the entire human population, one may wonder – how much weight does plastic hold in our lives? The news continually brings up the period of which plastic takes to decompose and its dire risks - seldom speaking about its importance and method of production.
While plastic certainly has sinister downsides, it also has its share of benefits. With the ability to be moulded into nearly any shape, dyed any colour, being relatively lightweight and resistant to several chemicals makes it attractive to manufacturers. From computers and cell phones to televisions and microwaves, durable, lightweight and affordable plastics have helped revolutionise the electronics we rely on every day.
The mass use of plastic started in the 1950s and has steadily grown ever since. Today, more than millions of tons of plastic are produced annually. The answer to the lengthy periods of decomposition of plastic lies in the knowledge of how it is made. Plastics are derived from natural, organic materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil. Crude oil is pumped up from the ground and sea in long pipes and then sent to an oil refinery.
Likewise, natural gas is extracted from rock formations deep under fields and waterways. The production of plastics begins with the distillation of crude oil in an oil refinery - in a method called the ‘refining process’. These raw materials go through a process using energy and water to alter their structure. This separates the heavy crude oil into groups of lighter components, called fractions.
After polymerisation, the plastics go through compounding. Various blends of materials are mixed by melting to make formulations for plastic. When the plastic finally takes shape, that is when it looks like the bottles one sees in stores and vending machines. It takes a lot of work and materials to make one single bottle.
Because plastic is so resistant to reacting with other materials, it takes a while to break down. Most plastic is made from refining oil and natural gas, composed of long, carbon polymers that make up the various forms of plastic we know. With non-renewable resources, plastic has been engineered to be so reliable that it can take multiple centuries to break down!
If one drops a plastic jug of juice on the floor, polyethene terephthalate will allow it to land unshattered. Unfortunately, if one drops it in a landfill, it likely will not break down there either. The only way that plastic breaks down is by photodegradation, which requires sunlight, not decomposing bacteria, to break the bonds that hold the long molecular chains together.
In a landfill, most plastic will seldom receive sunlight, but when plastic pollution enters waterways, plastic is bathed in UV rays from sunlight. As the plastic breaks down into tiny pieces in the water, it can release toxic chemicals, damage aquatic ecosystems, and wash up on shorelines. Putting a bottle in the trash means it will most likely end up in a landfill, where the useful resources invested in making plastic will not get the opportunity to take on a new life while littering proves to be worse – by wasting natural resources and ravaging a once prosperous ecosystem.
We face a plastic dependency crisis, where due to our toxic relationship with it – we are drowning. Plastic will likely not disappear from our shelves in the next decades, but we can manage it more efficiently. It is clear that plastic has served as a useful tool for human health and even some forms of waste reduction, but the carbon-intensive manufacturing process and long life cycle of plastic mean we cannot rely on the material for as many purposes as it serves now.