From cars to food wrap and from planes to pens, you can make anything and everything from plastics. But there's a snag. Plastics are synthetic (artificially created) chemicals that don't belong in our world and don't mix well with nature. Discarded plastics are a big cause of pollution, cluttering rivers, seas, and beaches, killing fish, choking birds, and making our environment a much less attractive place.
You know, plastics are carbon-based polymers and we make them mostly from petroleum. They're incredibly versatile. However, the trouble is that plastic is just too good. We use it for mostly disposable, low-value items such as food container and product packaging, but there's nothing particularly disposable about most plastics. On average, we use plastic bags for 12 minutes before getting rid of them, yet they can take fully 500 years to break down in the environment.
Getting rid of plastics is extremely difficult. Burning them can give off toxic chemicals such as dioxins, while collecting and recycling them is also difficult, because there are many different kinds and each has to be recycled by a different process. If we use only tiny amounts of plastics, that wouldn't be so bad, but we use them in astounding quantities.
We're literally drowning in plastic we cannot get rid of. And we're making most of it from oil, which is a non-renewable resource that is becoming increasingly expensive. It's been estimated that 200,000 barrels of oil are used each day to make plastic packaging for the United States alone.
Ironically, plastics are engineered to last. You may have noticed that some plastics do, gradually, start to go cloudy or yellow after long exposure to daylight. To stop this happening, plastics manufacturers generally introduce extra stabilizing chemicals to give their products longer life. With society's ever-increasing focus on protecting the environment, there's a new emphasis on designing plastics that will disappear much more quickly.
Broadly speaking, so-called "environmentally friendly" plastics fall into three types:
1. Bioplastics made from natural materials such as corn starch.
2. Biodegradable plastics made from traditional petrochemicals, which are engineered to break down more quickly.
3. Eco/recycled plastics, which are simply plastics made from recycled plastic materials rather than raw petrochemicals.