THE HISTORY OF PLASTIC
During the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution’s mass production methods brought about an increased volume and variety of manufactured goods. Suddenly, many natural materials were running low in nature’s supply chain. Freinkel (2011) explains for example how rubber producing plants are vulnerable to excessive demand. Even some animals were facing extinction such as the hawksbill turtle, its shell used to fashion combs, or the elephant, its ivory used for all manner of things, from buttonhooks to boxes, from piano keys to billiard balls.
That's when the history of synthetic plastics commences. Chemist all around the world began experimenting, aiming to create a mass-producible fully synthetic product. In 1862, Alexander Parkes unveiled the first man-made plastic called Parkesine. It disappeared however rather quickly from public use due to its high costs.
In 1907, chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland stumbled upon the formula for a new synthetic polymer originating from coal tar. “Bakelite” enabled the true revolution of plastic and the birth of the modern plastic industry. With superior features such as electrically non-conductive and heat- resistant properties, durability and ease to use, Bakelite soon found its way into thousands of products in Europe and North America, from jewellery to construction, packaging, automobiles and airplanes.
From our contact lenses to the fibers in our socks, from cooking spoons to bike wheels; nearly every product of our daily life contains plastic. Our present time could be qualified as the “Plastic Era”.
What’s more, there exists also plastic which isn’t in plain sight: microplastic.
Through the abrasion of products like shoe soles, car tires or kitchen sponges, tiny fragments of plastic disintegrate and end up as fine dust in our households and the environment.
And micro-plastic remains dangerous: the tiny parts in our air, taken up by plankton and eaten by fish, finally enter our food chain. The latter poses a potential threat to our health: numerous types of plastic contain poisonous additives.
WATER AND PLASTIC
Water needed for plastic production: Millions of liters of water are needed to produce our everyday products, such as clothing, foodstuff, packaging or construction items. Most of these products are highly water-intensive materials, often without us even knowing. And manufacturing of plastic items is one of them.
The water embedded in the production process of plastic materials is astronomical: producing 1 kilogram of plastic requires around 187 litres of water (Waterwise, 2007; Treloar et al. 2004). 322 million metric tons (MMT) of plastics were produced worldwide in 2015 (Responsible Water Scientists, 2017), which would amount to 60 214 000 000 000 liters of water.
For instance, it takes more water to produce a plastic water bottle than the quantity of water actually contained in the bottle (Water footprint calculator, 2018). Around 7 liters of water are needed to produce a one-liter plastic bottle (Environmental Technology Centre, 2010 – 2018).
Plastic in Water: plastic litter in water cycles: Water cycles and plastic are closely interlinked. On the one hand, water is needed to produce plastics, while on the other hand, huge amounts of plastic litter end up in waterways, rivers, lakes and the marine ecosystems each year. While no rigorous figures on the exact quantities exist yet (Jambeck et al., 2015), it is estimated that up to 10% of plastic debris - 8 million tonnes a year - is released into marine environments (Jambeck et al., 2015; Thompson 2006, Gallo and al., 2018).
It has been estimated that by 2025, 250 million tonnes of plastic will be found in the oceans (Deutsche Lebensmittel Rundschau, 2018). It is projected that this figure will reach 1800 million tonnes in 2050 (UNEP 2016, Gallo and al. 2018). Causes for plastic leaking into the oceans are diverse, such as lacking waste management infrastructure and facilities, inefficient waste collecting, increase in annual plastic production, economic growth and many more (Gallo and al., 2018).
Once at sea, plastic litter can no longer be easily removed. Due to photodegradation and other weathering processes, it fragments into small particles (Gallo and al., 2018) - termed “microplastic” - which are ingested by marine invertebrates. During their research M. C. Goldstein and D. S. Goodwin (2013) found out that 33.5% of gooseneck barnacles (Lepas spp.) had plastic particles present in their gastrointestinal tract. Mainly composed of polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene, the plastic ingested ranged from one to a maximum of 30 particles (M. C. Goldstein and D. S. Goodwin, 2013). In some aquatic ecosystems, the mass of plastic even exceeds the mass of plankton (Moore et al., 2001) and the number of plastic particles exceeds the number of fish larvae (Lechner et al., 2014).
FOOD AND PLASTIC
The Plastic in Food: Microplastics in the food chain: microplastics and chemical additives or residues enter into our foodchain trough different means, either by being absorbed by plants and marine animals directly, or by “migrating” from plastic packaging into foodstuff. Microplastics were found in more than 100 marine species (Gallo and al., 2018).
However, as no data on the toxicity of microplastics in seafood and the potential impact of cooking seafood are available yet (Lusher and al., 2017), intensive scientific research still needs to be carry out to fill these knowledge gaps (Gallo and al., 2018).
The Food in Plastic: chemical residues from plastic packaging leaching into food: Studies have shown that chemicals can leach from plastic packaging, such PET bottles, into food and beverages. Various factors can be responsible for this migrating, such as length of time stored, UV radiation etc. (Mighty Nest, 2018).
Through different legislative texts, the European Commission tries limit the amount of chemical residues contained in plastic packaging, containers, production machinery from entering - or “migrating” - into food and thereby protect consumers’ health.
ENERGY AND PLASTIC
Energy in Plastics: linkages between fossil fuels and plastics: Plastics are derived from organic materials such as natural gas, coal or crude oil, which are complex mixtures of numerous of compounds (American Chemistry Council 2005-2018, Plastics Europe 2018). In fact, over 99% of plastics are manufactured from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels (Center for International Environmental Law, 2017). So, plastics come from energy resources. But what quantities of fossil fuels are actually needed to produce the plastic products of our daily lives?
For instance, it takes around 162 grammes of oil to produce a one-liter plastic bottle (Environmental Technology Centre, 2010 – 2018).
Plastics in Energy: Plastic materials in Renewable energies: it takes considerable amounts of water to produce energy, such as for cooling, extraction or hydroenergy (Water footprint calculator, 2018). But what we are not thinking about is the massive amount of plastic needed to produce electricity in the first place. For instance, the rotor blades of wind turbines need to be light (to spin faster) and are therefore made of lightweight plastic composites (American Chemistry Council, 2017-2018). Also, solar panels’ parts are connected by various plastics (American Chemistry Council, 2017-2018) and new plastic-based solar cells are anticipated to enter the market in the near future (Essentra components, 2018). Moreover, power transmission and transport of electricity is dependent on plastic. Devices like fibers, wires, cables, caps, plugs, switches or electronic hardware are all made out of plastic. In fact, plastics play an ever-greater role in the generation of energy.