Plastics Facts



Polymers explained

Plastics are large molecular structures called polymers which are made up of thousands of smaller molecular units (monomers) bonded together. Commercial polymers are generally produced by manipulating natural products or by synthesizing basic hydrocarbons found in oil, natural gas, and coal. Plastics typically include molecular units composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine, and sulfur.

“Biodegradable” plastics

Biodegradable plastics are made of natural plant material such as corn oil, orange peels, starch, and other plants. Unlike traditional plastic material, biodegradable plastic can decompose naturally by microorganisms and bacteria which can metabolize them. However, in order for biodegradable plastics to be broken down, they must be disposed of correctly, meaning that they must be composted. Biodegradable plastics will not break down in landfills.

A Brief History of Plastics in Industry and Society

The first synthetic plastic was invented in 1907. Since then, plastics have infiltrated virtually every sector of industry. During the World War II era the ever increasing varieties of synthetic polymers took the place of natural resource material such as wood, glass, and metal in many different products including furniture, dining ware, packaging, and car parts. For a brief time, people saw plastics as the answer to the problem of limited natural resources and a growing population with an increasing demand for material goods. In fact, the use of plastics enabled an increase in materialism. Prior to plastics, companies and consumers had to be more aware of how they used materials because of their limited nature. With a seemingly endless supply of plastics, awareness of the quantity of material used for things like packaging went away and was replaced by a desire for convenience (Science History Institute).

In the 1960s, people began to see how the overuse of plastic was not without consequences. Increasing awareness of the negative environmental and health effects that plastics have. Despite this, industries like the natural gas industry continue to promote plastics and encourage their overuse.


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