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What Is Plastic And Why Is It Bad?

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Author: Hai Le

Updated on March 20, 2024 β€’ Estimated read time: 7 minutes

Plastic has become an inseparable part of our lives. From product packaging to convenient and useful household items, plastic is everywhere. However, despite its convenience, plastic poses an alarming threat to our environment and ecosystem.

As society becomes increasingly conscious of the issues surrounding plastic pollution, one common question arises: What exactly is plastic? And why is it a threat to our environment?

In this blog post, I will provide you with a brief overview of the fundamental properties of plastics. Followed by a more detailed description of their manufacturing process to create useful products.

Hopefully, you'll have the necessary knowledge to make more informed decisions and actively reduce your plastic consumption by the end of this blog post.

What Is Plastic?

Plastics are versatile materials that can be shaped or molded through the application of heat and pressure. They are lightweight, transparent, and tough organic compounds that generally do not conduct electricity well.

The raw materials for today's plastics come from many places, but the majority can be produced using hydrocarbons extracted from easily accessible natural materials such as natural gas, coal, and crude oil.

Fun Fact: According to the Water Footprint Calculator, it requires 22 gallons of water to produce one pound of plastic. This means it takes at least double the amount of water to produce a single-use bottle as the amount of water in the actual bottle.

There is 2 type of plastics: Thermoset and Thermoplastics. Thermosets typically cannot be recycled because they harden as you heat them, meaning that no matter how much heat you apply, they cannot be remelted into new material. On the other hand, thermoplastics are recyclable plastics because they can be re-melted and re-molded into new products.

Summary: Plastics are versatile materials that can be shaped using heat and pressure. They are known for their lightweight, durable, transparent, and cost-effective nature. The raw materials for plastics are derived from natural sources such as natural gas, coal, and crude oil.

A huge pile of plastic garbages sitting on landfill

Why Is Plastic Bad For The Environment?

Given what we've just learned about the properties of plastics, it's no wonder that plastics play a significant role in clothing, packaging, transportation, and many other aspects of daily life. However, plastic is considered harmful to the environment for several reasons:

Reason #1 - Pollution: Plastics are a major contributor to pollution.

  • Air Pollution: Plastic production relies on petroleum oil, a nonrenewable fossil fuel that contributes to air pollution.
  • Litter Pollution: Improper disposal and inadequate recycling lead to plastic waste entering rivers, oceans, and landfills, causing significant harm to the ecosystems and marine life.

Reason #2 - Non-Biodegradable: Standard plastics are not compostable, meaning they do not naturally break down over time. In fact, they can take up to 1,000 years or more to decompose, taking up valuable space in landfills and polluting natural habitats.

Reason #3 - Microplastics: Plastics can degrade into smaller fragments known as microplastics. Microplastics not only pollute water but also pose a danger to animals, as they can become entangled or mistake them for food.

Reason #4 - Making Plastic Uses A Lot Of Natural Resources: The production of plastics requires significant amounts of energy and resources, including the extraction of fossil fuels, as well as large quantities of water.

Summary: Due to these factors, plastic pollution has become a global environmental concern. They contribute to pollution, take centuries to decompose, generate microplastics that are harmful to animals, and require significant natural resources for production.

Art concept of someone consuming plastic trash

Does Plastic Harm Our Health?

Plastic can indeed harm our health in various ways. Here are some of the potential ways plastic can affect our well-being:

  1. Toxic Chemicals: Plastic products can contain toxic chemicals such as phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and flame retardants. These chemicals can leach toxins into the food or drink they contain. When consumed, these toxins can enter our bodies and harm our health.
  2. Microplastics And Nanoplastics: A recent study has found that people eat about five grams of micro and nanoplastics every week. They have been detected in various parts of our bodies, including the deepest section of the lung. The long-term health effects of microplastic exposure are still being researched, but it is a growing concern.

Exposure to the toxic chemicals found in plastic has been linked to various health issues in humans. These include cardiovascular diseases, developmental and neurobehavioral disorders, metabolic diseases, immune dysfunction, endocrine disruption, and an increased risk of certain cancers.

Note: Plastic can pose risks to human health, but the extent of these risks may vary depending on the type of plastic, the specific chemicals involved, and the duration and intensity of exposure. However, considering the potential negative impacts, it is advisable to reduce plastic use whenever possible, especially in contexts where it comes into contact with food and beverages.

Summary: Despite being one of the most pervasive materials on the planet, plastic also poses a significant health risk, especially when it comes in contact with food and beverages. These chemicals have been shown to cause a wide range of effects on human health.

A sea gull trapped in plastic

Does Plastic Harm Wildlife Health?

According to Greenpeace, more than one million sea birds and one hundred thousand marine mammals are killed every year by plastic in our oceans.

Marine animals, birds, and terrestrial creatures often mistake plastic debris for food and easily become entangled in it. While larger plastic items can lead to injuries, suffocation, and even death, smaller fragments known as microplastics can accumulate in the digestive system, causing reduced feeding signals.

Fun Fact: There are so many ways plastic can end up in the ocean. Every day around 8 million pieces of plastic makes their way into the oceans.

Unfortunately, marine mammals don't understand the dangers that plastics pose to them. This problem was created by humans, and only humans can fix it.

Summary: The modern plastic never fully biodegrades. It can break down into smaller microplastics, where marine life and birds mistake them for food. Even worse, plastic can cause animals to entangle, making them drown, starve, or choke to death.

Comparing marine creature with ocean plastic trash

What Can We Do To Solve This Problem?

Due to the demand for plastic being high, many companies will continue producing plastic products for their consumers to earn profit. We (as consumers) must be aware of the plastic problem, and start doing something about it.

Have you ever wondered where all the plastic stuff we throw away goes? Most of them will be transported to a landfill, where over 90% of them will spend the next hundreds of years to biodegrade.

Fun Fact: Nearly 180,000 trucks are being used to transport garbage each day throughout the United State, driving an average of 25,000 miles per truck each year.

To help solve the plastic pollution problem, we can take several actions:

  1. Use Plastic-Free Products: One effective action to combat plastic pollution is to use plastic-free products. For example, switching from plastic toothbrushes to the alternative version bamboo toothbrushes, we can actively reduce the demand for plastic and encourage sustainable choices.
  2. Reduce Single-Use Plastics: Minimize our use of single-use plastics like plastic bags, water bottles, straws, take-out containers, and any other plastic items that are used once and then discarded, can make a significant contribution to reducing plastic waste.
  3. Proper recycling: This should go without saying, but when you use plastics product that can be recycled, always be sure to recycle them. By ensuring that plastic waste that can be recycled is properly recycled, we can effectively prevent plastics from ending up in the landfill or oceans and reduce the need for new plastic production.
  4. Spread Awareness: Staying informed about plastic pollution issues and educating others about the problem can inspire more people to take action. Consider spreading awareness with your friends, family, and community members for a helping hand.

Summary: Solving the plastic pollution problem requires collective effort. By making conscious choices, spreading awareness, promoting recycling, and switching to eco-friendly alternative, we can work towards a cleaner and more sustainable future.

Quick Takeaway

Plastics are versatile materials that can be shaped using heat and pressure. They are known for their lightweight, durable, transparent, and cost-effective nature. Even though plastic play a significant role in our society, it is harmful to our environment.

Plastic also poses risks to both human health and wildlife. Modern plastic never fully biodegrades, it just breaks down into smaller microplastics, where marine life and birds mistake them for food (Study found that we consume about five grams of micro and nanoplastics every week without knowing). These chemicals have been shown to cause a wide range of health effects.

Frequently Asked Questions Relate To This Blog:

Question #1: How plastic are made?

Answer: Plastic is made from petroleum or natural gas. These materials are heated and then combined with other chemicals to create a polymer. Once the polymer is created, it can be molded into a variety of shapes. Some common plastic products include bottles, bags, and toys.

Question #2: How does plastic pollution affect the environment?

Answer: Plastic pollution is a major environmental problem. Plastic can take hundreds of years to break down, pollute our water supply by contaminating it with harmful chemicals, or animals mistake it as food and eat it.

Question #3: What are some ways to reduce my plastic consumption?

Answer: If you're looking for a way to reduce your plastic pollution, I would recommend using a bamboo toothbrush instead of a plastic toothbrush. Bamboo is a renewable resource that grows quickly and requires no pesticides or fertilizers.

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