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By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. Already, there are over 165 million tons of plastic in the ocean, which is 25 times heavier than the great pyramid of Giza. In addition to that, only 9% of plastic is recycled. This poses a question: What effects do plastics have on the environment?
Plastic had a long history. Early plastics were made from eggs and blood proteins, which were organic polymers. In around 1600 B.C., natural rubbers were used by the Mesoamericans for balls, bands, and figures.
In the middle ages, treated cattle horns were used as windows.
Parkesine was considered the first man-made plastic. The plastic material was patented by Alexander Parkes in England. Parkesine won a bronze medal in 1862 World’s Fair. Parkesine was made from cellulose, which is a material in plants’ cell walls, treated with nitric acid.
In 1907, Bakelite, the first thermoset, was synthesized by Belgian-born American, Leo Baekeland, who also known as “The Father of the Plastics Industry”, by using phenol and formaldehyde.
The figure on the right is the skeletal formula of Bakelite, also known as polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride. The substance’s chemical formula is (C6H6O·CH2OH)n. The presence of carbon and hydrogen atoms makes Bakelite an organic compound.
After the First World War, new improvements in technology lead to the creation of new types of plastic. The mass production of plastics started in the 1940s and 1950s (around the Second World War).
Today, a plastic known as polyester is commonly used. Plastics today contain organic polymers, which are formed from chains of carbon atoms sometimes with the addition of oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur.
Manufacturers add chemicals to it, which are toxic to living organisms, to add shelf life.
The IUPAC’s (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) definition of plastic Generic term used in the case of polymeric material that may contain other substances to improve performance and/or reduce costs.
The plastic industry is an ever-growing industry. By 2025, the plastic market size is expected to reach $721.14 billion, and in 2050, plastic production is expected to double.
Plastics are anonymously ubiquitous, nearly everything is plastic. Did you know that cars and planes (by volume) are 50% plastic? In addition to that, the cotton cloth you wear isn’t mostly cotton: they are more plastic (polyester and nylon) than cotton or wool in your cloth. Chewing gum also contains plastic.
36% of plastics are used for packaging, 16% are used for construction, 7% are used for transportation, 10% are used for consumer products, 15% are used in textiles, and 10% are used in other sectors.
Tin and aluminum cans are lined in plastic containing Bisphenol A (C15H16O2), abbreviated as BPA. The figure on the right is the skeletal structure of Bisphenol A.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a human carcinogen that is found in containers that store food and beverages, such as water bottles. If it seeps into the food or drink and the food or drink is consumed, health problems may arise.
BPA is also found in microwave popcorn container. Heat from the microwave may cause BPA to seep, causing potential health problems. The presence of BPA in microwaved popcorn is the reason why microwaved popcorn is potentially cancerous.
Plastics pose a major threat to the environment and the ecosystem. Numerous studies were conducted on the effects of plastics, and most of them, if not all, yielded terrible results.
A study at Lund University in Sweden shows that plastics may end up inside fish brains, causing brain damage to the fish. Tiny animal planktons eat the plastic nanoparticles, which in turn are eaten by fish, which harms them. Another result of the study is that animal planktons die when exposed to plastic nanoparticles, but not in large plastics. However, the large plastics break down into smaller particles due to the ultraviolet rays from the sun, which turns into plastic nanoparticles (killing tiny animal planktons).
According to Columbia University, Trash Travels estimates that plastics bags take 20 years to decompose, plastic bottles take 450 years to decompose, and 600 years for fishing line. The majority of the plastic found in oceans are less than 1 centimeter.
Moreover, millions of animals are killed by plastics every year, and there’s no sign of stopping. In fact, half of all plastics were manufactured in the last 15 years. Plastics are also consumed by land animals, causing liver and cell damage as well as disruptions to the reproductive systems in these animals, and in some cases, death results from consuming plastic.
Plastic causes around 100 million animal deaths a year, and there more than 51 trillion plastic pieces in the ocean. Animals must avoid all these plastics or they will face bad consequences! 50 to 80 percent of all dead sea turtles had plastic found in them. Another disturbing result from a study conducted in the UK this year showed that 100% of dolphins, whales, and seals on the UK’s coast had plastics in their bodies.
What about trying to get rid of plastic by incineration? Some countries do that, and trying to incinerate plastic is a terrible idea. Plastics contain toxic chemicals. Burning them releases them into the environment as well as greenhouse gasses, which contributes to global warming. Incinerating plastic emits even more CO2 than coal! The United States is also turning to the incineration of plastic.
Fortunately, there are multiple solutions to the major problem. One of the solutions is recycling plastics. However, countries are not willing to do that because of the expenses. Governments may increase tax for plastic manufacturers and use the extra money for recycling plastic.
Another possible solution is to support the invention of Eco-friendly plastics that won’t be hazardous to the environment. Governments may also impose strict laws on plastic manufactures.
Unfortunately, using biodegradable plastic is not a solution because they are even harder to recycle than convention plastic, and sometimes, they don’t biodegrade and rather fragment. Fragmented plastics increases the risk of health problems in animals.
Plastic is a global issue we all need to collaborate to find a solution, or else we will drown in plastic.
Of all the waste we generate, plastic bags are perhaps the greatest symbol of our throwaway society. They are used, then forgotten, and they leave a terrible legacy. – Zac Goldsmith (b. 1975)
Facts and figures are gathered from the links below. However, please note that in every link below, all of the facts present in it are used in the essay. Nearly all of the facts used in this essay are gathered from the link below. Figures used in the essay are also included below.
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