Plastics Part 1: An amazing, synthetic problem

Guest blogger, Jessica Connolly of Recology San Francisco explores plastics and her relationship to them in this series.


Plas·tic   ‘plas-tik  (noun) – A synthetic, or partially synthetic material made from polymers, with the ability to change into a desired shape when heat and pressure are applied, and to retain that shape when heat and pressure are withdrawn.


Photo by katerha (via flickr)Plastic was the first purely synthetic product created by humans. This new material started the trend of our disposable lifestyle and paved way for the overproduction of useless, toxic, non-recyclable, non-biodegradable, and environmentally concerning products.

However, plastics would not be everywhere if they weren’t amazing. They are the most multi-purpose material on the planet; they don’t break, they’re lightweight, and come in many shapes, forms, and consistencies. I’ve realized, while sitting here writing, that every article of clothing I’m wearing right now came from plastics. They are used in just about every industry, and almost everyone on the planet uses them in some way or another. Plastics can saves our lives, and they can also endanger them. Plastics really are incredible, but they have so many negative impacts—permanent detrimental impacts—that we need to not only question the material’s omnipresence, but also change it.

Plastics are one of those materials that don’t have the capability of going away, or biodegrading. Because of their durable properties, they generally does not break down; when burned, they form dioxins (the most toxic chemicals on the planet), and when buried they just sit in landfills, mummifying, rather than decomposing.

The cycle of extracting precious, non-renewable reserves of oil and natural gas out of the ground, manufacturing these resources into plastic products, and then releasing them back into the air contributes to climate change and the surplus of CO₂ in our atmosphere. Plastics also pollute many types of environments, especially marine habitats and wildlife. Plastics breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces from sun exposure (called photodegradation), making them resemble food or other animals. Wildlife feed and get entangled in it, endangering fragile ecosystems and animal populations.

Photo by katerha (via flickr)

When plastics ends up in ecosystems, they work their way up the food chain eventually reaching the top consumers: humans.  Plastics do not just pollute the environment, they pollute our bodies. When ingested, plastic attaches to lipids and fatty tissue, what is known as bioaccumulation. Since they don’t pass through the digestive tract, they stay in our bodies forever. This bioaccumulation affects our hormones, reproductive organs, and causes certain cancers, such as to the liver cancer, breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Re·cy·cling rē-ˈsī-kəling (verb) – To alter or adapt for new uses without changing the basic structure or nature of, and to use again with minimal alteration.

If we are working toward a more sustainable future, over-consumption of plastics cannot be part of it. I’m not implying that all plastics should be eliminated, as they have important uses, especially in medicine. But the way that they are used needs to drastically change. Even when recycled, plastics undergoes what is known as downcycling, since the recycling process does not minimally alter them; the same plastic material is generally recycled once, (sometimes twice) and then becomes unusable (unrecyclable) and landfill-bound.

The first life of the plastic comes from a nonrenewable energy source, and uses massive amounts of energy to be produced. The recycling process depends on those raw inputs and additional energy to improve the quality of the recycled product. Plastic is extremely problematic and contributes to the linear system of extraction, production, usage and disposal.

In order to become a sustainable society, that loop needs to be closed; minimizing and reducing our use of plastics is a great way to take that first step toward sustainability. Changing the usage of plastics will make a world of difference.

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