Scitech | Plastic fantastic

Has this polymer’s reputation been stretched out of proportion?

What comes to mind when one hears the word “plastic”? Is it a heaping pile of empty water bottles, the notorious clique of Mean Girls, or a synthetic material constructed from a wide range of organic polymers? While the third is technically the most accurate, it is hardly the most common conception of plastic. Nowadays, the word plastic implies environmental degradation, toxicity, and artificiality. But, has plastic actually earned its bad rap?

By definition, plastics are materials that can be moulded or extruded into objects, films, or filaments. They are made of polymers – giant molecules of interconnected monomers. These monomers are molecular building blocks linked in chains that can be branched or linked in countless ways to create various physical properties, like malleability and elasticity.

Over 150 years ago, Parkesine, named after English inventor Alexander Parkes, was the first plastic to be synthesized. The development of plastics was inspired by natural plastic materials, and plastics come in varying degrees of “naturalness”. From naturally-occurring products, like chewing gum, to the use of chemically-modified natural materials, like rubber and collagen, to completely synthetic molecules, like polyvinyl chloride plastics have a extremely wide range of artificiality.

Each decade of the 20th century saw the introduction of newer and more versatile plastics. In 1909, Dr. Lee Hendrik Baekeland introduced phenolics, the first plastic to achieve worldwide acceptance. He developed techniques to liquefy the material so that it could be moulded into various shapes under heat and pressure. In the 1920s, colour came into the picture with the development of cellulose acetate, which allowed the use of coloured articles — a much more attractive alternative to the black and brown phenolics. Other ground-breaking creations included vinyl in 1913 and nylon in 1935.

The plastics industry took a great leap in the 1960s, when the material began to infiltrate people’s daily lives. Plastics were used for everything from car dashboards and suits to dishes and tablecloths. Plastic dolls were the envy of every schoolgirl, as they didn’t break like older porcelain dolls, and they came in an assortment of colours. Cling wrap and Tupperware revolutionized food storage. People even enjoyed plastic clothing (although, thankfully, this is a fad that has not survived). Plastics began being used in such a wide range of products that one would be hard pressed to find something that didn’t contain some kind of plastic.

There is no denying that plastic has utilitarian value. However, it comes at a price. As with most industrial processes, the production of plastic involves toxic chemicals, requires energy, and releases greenhouse gases. However, perhaps the most pressing concern is the overwhelming amount of plastic waste.
This waste is not surprising considering that many of us feel that, because plastic does not seem as durable as things like metal or glass, it is temporary, easily disposable, and easily replaceable. Plastics engineer Mike Biddle has set out to find a solution to the problem of plastics waste. In his recent TED Talk, he claims that most people think plastics are a throwaway material that has very little value. In fact, plastics are several times more valuable than steel, which is recycled at a much higher rate.

The fact of the matter is that plastic is an incredibly versatile and useful substance. While it may seem like a simple task to ban substances such as bisphenol A (BPA) because of its health concerns, finding a replacement is no small feat. And this difficulty is not necessarily due to a lack of effort as the creation of products with less, or no plastic, would generate a small fortune – especially given the bad reputation plastic has. For now it looks as though plastic is here to stay and, in the meantime, it is critical that we reduce our consumption of plastic. It goes without saying that if the demand for plastic is decreased, then the supply will also decrease. As a result, this brazen attitude of viewing plastic as something that is easily disposable cannot continue.