The Plastic Burden

I will write a lot about plastic. I love plastic, or rather hate it, or love thinking and talking about it. I fear that one day the plastics industry will come after me (little me) for writing about plastic in a negative light. As far as I know plastic in itself is not patented and could in theory be reproduced by various groups (I could definitely be incorrect and probably am). However, my perception is that the production of plastics is quite a controlled niche in American industry. While I have read that the plastics industry is one of the largest domestics I have never been able to easily find statistics or open-source information.

Plastics are produced using petroleum. Contrary to somewhat common misinformation they do not biodegrade. Rather, they experience a process known as photodegradation through which they break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. Unlike biodegradation, during which the chemical compounds in a material breakdown into their base materials (inorganic/organic materials–check my science), the result of photodegradation are smaller pieces which mirror the chemical and physical structures of the original item. In other words, a plastic bag will always be a plastic bag, though it may eventually be in thousands of pieces, buried in soils or scattered in oceans.

To reiterate the point, nearly all of the plastic that has ever been created on this planet is still on this planet. The exception might be plastics which have been burned, though this causes other environmental problems that will be discussed later. So where does all the plastic end up? Landfills, oceans, riverbeds, creeks, trees, roads, homes, animals bellies, the food chain, and beyond. But where did all the plastic come from? If plastic existed beforehand then isn’t all of this natural? While through some sick and twisted definitions of the term natural may respond in the affirmative I will say that the petroleum-to-plastics production process is not natural.

Plastic is produced primarily (or for the most part) from petroleum. This petroleum is excavated from below the ground, and now commonly from below the ocean floor, where it took millions of years to develop from organically decomposing carbon-containing materials (science check). This excavated oil will not be replenished during human existence, which is why oil is commonly called a nonrenewable resource (more on this later). In short, plastic requires that materials (petroleum) be taken out of the ground and processed in large intermediary and end factories where they become bottles, bags, and a million other items that made of plastic.


About Emerging Environments

Thoughts about environmental policy, sustainability, cancer, and more.
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