Features

Plastic, Part I

When I look around my kitchen, I am met with the array of typical western kitchen tools and accoutrements:

Copper pots, stainless steel pans, mismatched metal silverware, wooden slabs, dual purpose spoons, and cabinets. Ceramic plates, cups and cutely sized ramekins. And everywhere in between, is, of course, plastic! 

Most of these appliances are formed by plastic molds, plastic cups, plastic utensils, and a fridge covered in some kind of plastic. Not to mention the mother of all plastics: tupperware. This is just my kitchen we’re talking about.

I read a tweet once that said if you just looked around, every place in America is covered in cars. Well, I see the very same for my kitchen and plastic. 

I’d like to think I’m a somewhat conscientious person when it comes to my footprint on the Earth’s face; I’m vegan, I recycle, hell, I even eat questionable leftovers because I despise the idea of food waste. And yet, when I look at my kitchen coop, it’s covered in a thick layer of unrecyclable, non-biodegradable currently functioning waste. 

In a way I feel bamboozled by my culture, and in another way, utterly unsure of how to independently unlatch from the convenience of plastic.

Thinking on it, the better measure is not to morally beat myself to death. Taking responsibility is a necessary step for change, but regret is wasted energy; it does not change the past nor does it guide the future. Yes, I got that from an excellent TV show on BIPOC struggles, called “When They See Us.” 

What needs to happen is change, and the way to approach change is by first educating myself on the myths and legends that are plastic. Afterall, you cannot vanquish enemies you know little characteristics of. 

So what is plastic?

Plastic is a broad term for a big family of stuff. There are things we totally recognize in this family, and other things we might not necessarily think of as “plastic.” Before “plastic” was even a word, the phenomenon of their main ingredient—polymers—were noticed and valued. Nearly all “plastics” that we know and use are polymers. 

Okay, what is a polymer?

Polymers are substances made up of many linear, repeating chains of bonded molecules. I’m fairly confident you are familiar with molecules, so we’ll start from how molecules end up into these bonded chains and become more than just singular forms.

So molecules are pretty happy being alone.They’re just hangin out, being molecules, doing molecule things.They don’t just get together and form neat superclusters willy-nilly. They generally hang out with molecules that look and function like them.

Things can change in this universe, however, when similar molecules are enticed by some catalyst (think heat or pressure), and get fused together. This fusion can produce some seriously interesting elements, but in the case of polymers, these many similar molecules fuse in a repeating, covalent chain. 

Once they do this, they are no longer singular molecules – also known as monomers. These new clusters of branched molecules are now polymers – also known as macromolecule. Another way of seeing it is as a lot of little molecules holding hands in a linear formation together, making them larger than their singular selves. These smaller, hand-holding molecular units are called monomers, and once they hold their hands and form tidy, repeating versions of themselves, they are polymers. 

This process is called polymerization. Furthermore, these polymers can join in a similar chain with other polymers, and, easily, become larger. 

To recap, monomers get with other monomers to make polymers, these get together with other polymers to make more polymers.

There are more steps and options for why and how polymerization happens, but in an effort to keep focused, we’ll stop there. Things you should know are:

  • When a substance has repeating elements, it’s a polymer
  • Polymers are awesome for making stuff because they are generally durable, and flexible, and have lots of mass.
  • There are naturally occuring, or organic, polymers in the world, i.e latex and rubber, hair and shell, cellulose, protein, etc. (we wont get into biopolymers, which is you). 
  • There are synthetic polymers, too. Some are made with a combination of natural molecules, and synthetic molecules. Some are made entirely with synthetic molecules. 
  • Plastics can range between natural, semi-synthetic and fully synthetic polymers.
  • Plastics can be divided into two categories: thermoplastic v. thermosets. 
    • Thermoplastic: plastic that can be heated and reformed repeatedly. Good for recycling!
    • Thermosets: Formed once, and cannot be reheated. Bad for recycling.

Before the “plastics”  we know and hate really showed up, humans interacted and manipulated natural polymers. 

Animal skin and hair were used to store food and make clothing, shells and horns made vessels and armor, and latex from latex trees made natural rubber products. It’s no secret that indigenous communities heated hair and horn to shape vessels

Additionally, here is a list of “natural” or “organic” polymers — just to give you an idea:

  • Wood
  • Protein (RNA, DNA)
  • Honey
  • Latex
  • Hemp
  • Shellac
  • Amber
  • Wool
  • Silk
  • Cellulose
  • Gums
  • Waxes 

Latex, arguably, has a large influence on the future of plastics as it has been the “bee’s knees” for quite some time. 

I’m talking all the way back into Mesoamerican times. 

Our earliest example is from the Olmec culture, 2500 BCE – 400 BCE, who would harvest the milky latex juice from a rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis), add water, prehistorically “vulcanize”, or heat up the juice with sulfur, and whip up the rubbery material they used for food storage and other sanitary measures. They even created rubber balls by which to play ancient baseball.

Later, around 1736, tricky white savages took to the idea of rubber and started colonizing areas with these magical trees and harvesting their magical juices. Through their typical imperialistic measures, rubber turned into a global trade and vulcanization was “rediscovered” in 1833 by some white nobody named Charles Goodyear. Tires, anyone?

But rubber could only do so much. It was elastic, sure, but the idea of something that could be easily molded to any shape and “stay” in that shape was far-fetched. It would be the make-up of natural rubber, those polymers we spoke about, that really titillated scientists and encouraged further inspection of the unique properties of polymers. 

This curious venture, as in the search for something better than just rubber, was first shouldered by Alexander Parkes, who first created a heated cellulose called Parkesine in 1862. 

In 1868, John Wesley Hyatt later discovered celluloid, a type of plastic that was used to create billiard balls and photographic film. Nevermind the balls, the film was pretty cool and can totally stay in our good graces.

In 1907, Leo Baekeland attempted to replace the popular anti-corrosive electronics liner Ebonite, or hard rubber, with a phenol-formaldehyde resin recipe originally proposed in 1899 by Authur Smith. Using a different technique than his predecessor, Baekeland fully synthesized the first thermoset plastic, named polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, otherwise known as Bakelite. This creation was the first of the completely man-made plastics, meaning no single molecule in Bakelite is naturally occuring. It is a fully synthetic, beastly cocktail of man’s hubris, destined for terrible greatness.

He patented this creature straight away, and it hit the shelves as early as 1909. This stuff revolutionized mechanical and electrical relative safety and application and was soon being turned into common goods like jewelry, phones, bomb casings and even replacing earlier billiard balls.

Once Bakelite flew to the stars, it lit a beacon for even more plastic ideas to come to the table. Even though many semi-synthetic and naturally occurring plastics existed previous to Bakelite, it was the manufacturing and maximum capitalising over Bakelite that unified the plastic community.

 Like a feeding frenzy, plastic manufacturing exploded. Here’s a general timeline of the most commonly used plastics and what they’re used for — 

  • 1926 (though first synthesized in 1872) – Polyvinyl Chloride or PVC/Vinyl
    • Pipes, insulation, imitation leather, flooring, records, signage, inflatable products, canvases, cables, general construction equipment, clothing, etc.
  • 1927 – Nylon
    • Fibers in clothes, combs, mechanical parts, food packaging, filaments (like toothbrush bristles) and so on.
  • 1928 – Acrylic or Plexiglass
    • Paint, furniture, fake nails, false teeth, glasses, windows, riot gear, general construction equipment, etc.
  • 1931 – (though created in 1839) Polystyrene
    • Packing peanuts, cases, CD’s and DVD’s, tupperware, containers, styrofoam, etc.
  • 1933 – Polyvinylidene chloride or Saran, also known as PVDC
    • Saran Wrap 
  • 1937 – Polyurethane
    • Varnish, spray foam, insulation, etc
  • 1938 – Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), or Teflon
    • Non-stick pans/pots/wares, casts, dental floss, hoses, coatings, etc
  • 1941 – (though created in 1928) Polyester or PETE 
    • Clothing fibers, dyes, sails, foams, tapes, finishes for guitars and pianos, etc

Here is another great source.

There is so much more than just this. Many things, in the process of development, have plastic additives or plasticizers added to change their integrity. Plastics are in coatings to make things flame retardant, more durable, and sometimes colorful. They also exist as texture additives, their purpose to smooth your skin or make walls and ceilings look more appealing. Their uses are manifold, outstandingly so, and have swept the globe with relentless ferocity. 

We use this stuff everywhere, people. Everywhere. Try looking around where you are right now. From a sign in the deepest part of the woods, to this plastic moulded computer, plastic pencil, plastic napkin dispenser, plastic lid (to my paper cup thank goodness) and god knows what else in the literal 2 square feet of my coffee shop table, which is also completely plastic. Like I said before, this world is coated in a layer of cars, plastic, and no shortage of idiots. 

Well surprise, surprise, turns out these godsend inventions were signed, sealed, and delivered by the devil himself. It’s destroying ecosystems faster than you could say, “I think Bakelite was a bad idea.”

For what was thought to be one of the worlds greatest simplifiers—amplifying convenience all over the globe in terms of sanitation, preservation, and manufacturing—is also the most convenient measure towards untimely death. 

Plastics are creatures of consequence. A step so far into the imagination of man, its presence shared no commonality with the reality of our world. There are no natural predators, decomposers, and even worse, conscious individuals of these features.

Next week, we’ll get into exactly what those consequences are. 

Be forewarned, I will inject whatever humor I have to lighten to load, but it is a burden to carry. I commend those with the courage to read of the truth, and even more so those who carry on to the week following, where we talk about ways to fix this co-dependent relationship. 

Until then, bring your own bottle, and try to reduce your to-go waste by 50%. Think of the dolphins.

Kyra Roesle

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