Analysis: it's worth understanding how plastics are made in the first place, and what impact this has on the planet

Plastics are all around us. From everyday items such as food packaging and clothing to industry and construction, they are everywhere. Recent studies have showed that microscopic pieces of plastic are in our bloodstreams and information is continually becoming more prevalent that plastics are causing significant environmental impacts .

Because of this, it's worth understanding how plastics are made in the first place, and what impact this has on the planet. For something that causes so many problems, the material itself is very simple. A plastic is just a very long chain of carbon. Different things can be stuck onto that chain of carbon atoms to make distinct types of plastic, like polyethylene which a lot of plastic bottles are made of, or polystyrene, the white packing material.

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From Business Insider World Wide Waste, why is it so hard to recycle styrofoam and polystyrene

Plastics can be split into two groups: synthetic and biobased plastics. Synthetic plastics account for the vast majority of plastic we come into contact with and are made from fossil fuels like crude oil and natural gas. Biobased plastics are not as standard and can be made from materials such as starch, vegetable oils, bacteria waste and other substances.

Synthetic plastics begin as crude oil and natural gas, which are essentially a mixture of thousands of chemical compounds called hydrocarbons, chains of different hydrogen and carbon molecules. These are extracted from deposits under the ground through the use of oil wells and various other means.

Crude oil is sent to a refinery where the mixture of hydrocarbons can be separated. Oil refineries work on the principle that these different hydrocarbons have different boiling points. They can be separated by heating the crude oil in a furnace and feeding the vapour into a distillation tower, and each chemical is separated as it cools off one by one at different temperatures.

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From Karthi Explains, how plastic is made

In this process, all the other things we get from crude oil are, like petrol and heating oil are separated out. One part, called Naphtha, is essential for plastic production. It's a mixture of hydrocarbon molecules with five to ten carbon atoms and is commonly used with natural gas to create the building blocks of plastics called monomers.

Before they can be built up into the really long chains of carbon and hydrogen that make up a plastic, they first have to be broken down into little tiny pieces. Then, these little pieces are stacked together into those long chains which we call the plastic. You put lots of styrene together and you get polystyrene. Join up lots and lots of ethylene and you've polyethylene.

But then you’ve just got a lump of raw plastic, which is not very helpful. It has to be shaped and that’s usually done with heat, which makes the plastic soft, and then it’s put into a mould.

We will have to find an alternative approach to the single-use plastics that dominate the marketplace and increase the demand for plastic production

There are two big problems with plastic. First, the methods used to pull the crude oil out of the ground can release pollutants that were in the oil deposit, like heavy metals. A European Environment Agency report said that crude oil and natural gas extraction are large emitters of greenhouse gases because of the energy needed for extraction.

Plastic production is a huge carbon dioxide emitter and accounts for roughly 13 million tonnes of CO2 annually in Europe alone. To put this figure into context, this amount of CO2 at room temperature and sea level would fill a cube with sides 2km long. Plastics currently account for 7% of oil consumption worldwide, which is expected to rise to 20% by 2050 at current rates.

That's where bioplastics can make a difference. Bioplastics are made in the exact same way, but by using renewable resources rather than pulling the raw materials out of the ground. Polylactic acid, or PLA is used in 3-D printers, and the building block for that is lactic acid, which you can get by fermenting plants like sugar cane. It’s also in your body and is released when you do strenuous exercise.

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From DW, bioplastics are said to be the "better" plastic of the future: biodegradable, eco-friendly and just as convenient. But is this actually true?

However, bioplastics can’t solve the second big problem of plastics: they don’t break down easily. Some plastics can be recycled, but it’s not easy. Different plastics need to be recycled in different ways, which is confusing to the person disposing of them, and expensive for the facility to sort them.

Some plastics, like PLA will break down in a big industrial composter, but more need to be ground up and melted before they can be used again. Eventually, it’ll have too many impurities, or will be too broken down to be of any use. Then it goes to landfill and is there for a very long time.

That’s not to say plastic is always and forever a terrible thing. Plastics are excellent materials. They are so adaptable and have become a large part of modern society. But with a climate crisis in full swing, we as a society will have to find an alternative approach to the single-use plastics that dominate the marketplace and increase the demand for plastic production.

Switching to alternatives to plastic, reducing reliance on single-use plastics and using materials capable of reuse, along with growing research into bioplastic alternatives with better end-of-life options when disposal is needed, will be critical steps that need to be made sooner rather than later to reduce dependence.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ