How Environmentally Friendly are Plastics?
Plastics are very versatile, but their makeup presents a real problem with the environment.
CREDIT: Water bottle photo via Shutterstock
Plastics have become an essential compound to modern life, found in everything from automobiles and electronics to linens and product packaging. Since 1979, more plastic has been produced in the United States than steel.
But the complex chemistry of plastic is responsible for more than a booming industry. It is also at the heart of an environmental crisis.
Plastic molecules consist of long carbon chains with repeating units. The elements and arrangement of these "monomers" determine the plastic's properties: stiff or elastic, hard or soft, transparent or opaque. No other construction material comes close to plastic's versatility.
But these sturdy molecular chains do not break down easily over time (as the molecules in wood and metal do). This has led to a big waste management problem. How big? About 23 million tons (21 million metric tons) per year.
New recycling techniques have helped to abate the growth of landfills, but not without many limitations.
Recycling plastics is expensive and time-consuming, and once the product has been broken down and remolded, its quality is greatly reduced. That which makes plastic such a useful tool, its strong monomer chains, prevents us from easily reshaping the material or engineering it back into its crude parts.
Current plastic recycling technologies will not solve the problem of our dwindling fossil fuels or our bulging trash piles. For the latter, researchers are turning to new techniques.
The development of new biodegradable plastics (including plastics that dissolve in seawater and plastics made from chicken byproducts) has become a hot research area as we become more conscious of our environmental footprint.
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