Disposal issues cloud importance of plastic
By Gene Kemmeter
Plastic has come a long way since its invention in 1869 as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls. John Wesley Hyatt created the first synthetic polymer using cellulose, the common natural polymer material that makes up the cell walls of plants. Polymers abound in nature.
During the next 150 years, inventors used natural substances and also plentiful carbon atoms from fossil fuels to make more synthetic polymers. Arranging the patterns in those atoms made the polymers strong, flexible and lightweight, fitting the then-definition of plastic, “pliable and easily shaped.”
Those adjustments and manipulations made polymers an essential part of our lives, saturating the world and changing the way we live. Advertisements praised polymers as the savior of elephants because it curtailed the slaughter of the wild animal. Synthetic billiard balls were cheaper and stronger, and the polymer could be changed into different shapes for a multitude of uses.
Those uses led to the development in 1907 of Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, as a substitute for shellac, a natural electrical insulator, to meet the demands in the United States during a period of rapid development toward electricity. Bakelite was a good insulator, heat resistant and durable, plus it was suited for mass production.
Plastics really became important in the United States during World War II to preserve scarce natural resources and synthetic alternatives were a priority. Plexiglas provided an alternative to glass for airplane windows, and nylon, a synthetic silk, was used for parachutes, ropes, helmet liners and body armor.
After the war, the use of plastics continued to grow, taking the place of paper and glass in packaging, steel in cars, and wood in furniture. Some called plastics a safe, inexpensive and sanitary substance that could be produced to almost any shape.
Perceptions about plastics as overwhelmingly positive began to change in the 1960s when Americans became increasingly aware of environmental problems. Plastic debris was observed in the oceans, the 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” exposed the dangers of chemical pesticides, oil spills occurred off the coastlines and the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire.
Plastic’s reputation fell further in succeeding decades because of increased waste. While many plastic products are disposable, plastic lasts virtually forever in the environment. The plastics industry offered recycling as a solution, but most plastics still end up in landfills or in the environment, particularly plastic bags and plastic straws. The problem of plastic waste is symbolized most vividly by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirl of plastic garbage the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean.
Plastic is also raising human health concerns focused on additives introduced during the manufacturing process. Those chemicals can leach out of plastic and into food, water and bodies. Scientists worry particularly about the continued accumulation for future generations.
Scientists are attempting to make plastics safer and more sustainable. Some innovators are developing bioplastics made from plant crops that are more environmentally friendly; others are working to make plastics that are truly biodegradable. These innovators recognize that plastics are not perfect but are critical to modern life and need to be environmental friendly.