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Plastic transformed the world and proved to be beneficial in many ways. At the same time, its excessive use poses an environmental threat that requires an immediate response. Since this synthetic polymer is easy to produce, pliable, and versatile, over the last decades, industries invented a vast number of plastic products that found their customer. As of now, companies are both pursuing their revenue objectives and endeavoring to meet the ever-growing needs of the population.
Unfortunately, both viable and cost-effective methods of production and recycling are yet to be found. This essay provides a brief historical oversight and key facts and statistics on plastic use and describes the stages of its life-cycle. With the widespread use of plastic in everyday life, it is now hard to believe that this polymer has not been around for centuries. The revolutionary discovery was made no earlier than in the 1860s when American scientists and researchers set out on a search for substitutes for natural resources.
Before this, the popularity of billiards had grown rapidly; however, there was no workable solution as to how to provide a stable supply of ivory for making balls. A sizeable award was offered to anyone who could find a way to go about that problem, and in 1869, John Wesley Hyatt invented plastic. Throughout the next six decades, significant investments in research took place, but what speeded up the developmental pace was World War II. Military needs necessitated industries to expand production and seek new methods of processing plastic.
To get a gist of how pressing the issue of plastic use is, one should take a look at key facts and statistics. First, plastic production requires vast energy consumption: it is true that plastic is an artificial substitute but a prime source of raw material for its production is crude oil which is a natural resource. Since its first major introduction for general use in the 1950s, over 9 billion metric tons of plastic were produced (Geyer et al. 4).
What is deeply unsettling about plastic production is that every piece that has ever been made never left the face of the Earth and will exist for years to come. Moreover, not much is being done to put plastic products that have already been in exploitation to further use, for according to the statistics, 91% of plastic is not recycled (Geyer et al. 4). One should note that, unlike many other materials, plastic does not biodegrade in any meaningful way, and this is the reason why addressing the issue is entirely the responsibility of humankind. The life-cycle of a plastic product starts with the extraction of natural resources such as crude oil and natural gas by mining companies.
Further, a processing facility or a refinery fractionally distills crude oil. The next step is polymerization in which polyethylene terephthalate (PET) emerges from a chemical reaction of mixing hydrocarbons with chemical catalysts. Later, plastic undergoes molding, which, depending on the type of product needed, can be done using various methods including blowing and injecting. Plastic products are then packaged and ready to be consumed.
There is a good chance that after consumption, these products will end up in a trash can or out in the wild. However, in some countries whose governments are concerned with environmental issues, plastic may be recycled. The history of plastic is not long; nevertheless, it has left a trace both literally and metaphorically. Plastic was invented due to the shortage of natural resources, and yet, for its production, industries have to extract crude oil and natural gas.
Despite the attempts to backtrack plastic use and production, the overall tendency is towards greater consumption. The majority of plastic products are never recycled, and since they cannot rot or biodegrade in any other way, they pollute the environment and pose many risks to nature and humankind.
Geyer, Roland, et al. “Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made.” Science Advances, vol. 3, no. 7, 2017, pp. 1-5.