Chemistry’s Greatest Achievement
Plastic is ranked among the 5 most important chemical achievements in terms of improving our quality of life. There is no human activity that spares this material. We find ourselves encountering the material in all of our daily action, either directly or indirectly. Plastic holds a place in everything (clothing, transportation, leisure, communication, health…) Plastic like the atomic bomb comes with just as much good as it does bad. The research on which the atomic bomb was conceived – the separation of an atom into two – catapulted the understanding of all that surrounds us. Unfortunately, we are all too aware of the consequences of this extraordinary discovery. The accumulation of all these plastic based products is catastrophic.
We start off with a melting pot of organic materials used separately – petroleum, gas, coal or plants. A first operation consists of extracting monomers. Petroleum is the most used raw material to obtain monomers. Then comes the polymerization which consists of linking monomers together. This chain lands us with the molecular structure of plastic. This very chain can take different forms resulting in a wide variety of plastics. Plastic bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate. Yogurt pots are made of polypropylene. These two molecular structures are recyclable. On the other hand, plastic bags that are made of low density polyethylene are very difficult to recycle. Even worse is PVC (plastic toys) which is very hazardous when recycled. All these difficult to recycle plastics often end up thrown out and accumulating in landfills or floating on the ocean. This accumulation suffocates the planet and its inhabitants.
The production chain of plastic objects is to be re-evaluated because several types of plastics are often combined to make a plastic product and these need to be separated before they are recycled. On top of the combined polymers producers add Bisphenol A (BpA), a hormone disruptor, which give plastic its versatility. This means that plastic products are not designed to be recycled but rather to be used once and disposed of. Overconsumption of food products packaged in plastic leads to the absorption of BpA which ultimately affects/modifies our anatomy. It is so ingrained in our daily life that is has physically become a part of our fabric - a further step in our evolution. Recycling is in fact a ‘down-cycling’ process – what goes into the recycling chain often comes out with a lower qualitative value because of the strains the materials are put through to be separated.