What is “Plastic” and how is it made? 

We see plastic everywhere, everyday and all the time. But have you ever wondered what it’s made of? how it’s made? Why it’s bad? 

Plastics are chains of like molecules linked together. These complex compounds are called ‘Polymers’. Hence, when referring to plastics, you’ll always hear poly- eg. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), Polylactic Acid (PLA) etc. Plastics today are most commonly derived from the distillation and polymerization of petroleum reserves at very high temperatures.

This process creates plastic from a source that is extractive and nonrenewable, to create a product that is low quality but will exist infinitely polluting any environment in which it is discarded and results in an immense release of greenhouse gasses from the factories. Even when plastic starts to break down after years and years of decay, this process too releases toxic fumes. Similar fumes are also released when plastic is burned. While plastic is an incredibly versatile product that has an immense number of uses, its negative impacts far outweigh the good.

Some Numbers

  • It takes 500-1,000 years for plastic to degrade.
  • Billions of pounds of plastic can be found in swirling convergences in the oceans making up about 40% of the world’s ocean surfaces. 
  • Plastic constitutes approximately 90% of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface (46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile)
  • One million sea-birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually from plastic in our oceans.
  • Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated).
  • Some of these compounds found in plastic have been found to alter hormones or have other potential human health effects.
  • If calculated by weight, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. 
  • The New Plastics Economy report also projected that by 2050 the plastics industry will consume 20% of oil production. The point is to highlight the fact that because most plastic is used only once, 95% of its economic value—worth up to $120 billion annually—is lost.
  • In the ocean, ultraviolet light makes plastic brittle and wave action crushes it, breaking it down into microplastics—pieces smaller than a grain of rice. If not consumed by marine life, these fragments slowly settle to the sea floor and stay there for hundreds of years.

    Read some more great ones here: https://www.5gyres.org/faq