Plastic is Fantastic !!! by ©LeDomduVin 2020
Plastic is Fantastic !!!
I don't get it. I really don't. More than 20 years that scientists are telling us to reduce the production and consumption of plastic and derived products, and instead we can see even more plastic everywhere invading all corners of our daily life. What's up with that?
A brief history of plastic
"Rubber" consists of natural polymers of the organic compound isoprene, harvested/collected in the form of the "latex", the white milky sap (or colloid) extracted from the rubber tree, which is then refined into rubber (via a chemical process called "vulcanization"), to be used for different purposes.
Understandably, prior to the vulcanization process was invented in the 19th century, natural rubber only existed under its primal form known as "latex".
Surprisingly enough, although latex has always existed, being present in rubber trees growing in various places around the globe (such as some countries of Africa, Asia and the Americas), and thus, could have been discovered and put to use long before, the first traces of its use only go back to 1600 BC, with the Mesoamericans (pre-Columbian societies of Central America) who, apparently, used natural rubber (latex) for balls, bands, and figurines. (*)
After that, natural rubber and its uses remained pretty much the same, with no major breakthrough until the end of the 18th century.
In fact, the evolution of "natural rubber" (latex) into "rubber", then later into "plastic" really started in the 19th century, with a few primordial discoveries like
- 1844 - Patents of the vulcanisation of rubber deposited by Thomas Hancock (in the UK) first, then Charles Goodyear (in the US)
- 1872 - PVC was accidentally invented
- 1889 - Eastman Kodak successfully patented the celluloid film
- and a few more...
At the dawn of the 20th century, the first "synthetic plastic" was invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian-born American living in New York state. It was based on a synthetic polymer made from phenol and formaldehyde, with the first viable and cheap synthesis methods he created in 1907. (**)
In the 40 years that followed its creation, synthetic plastic triggered the interests of both scientists and industrials alike. It was then further studied, developed, enhanced and produced, yet was mainly created and mostly used for various household and industrial products, at first.
Also, probably due to the timing of its creation and development between the two World Wars, plastic remained a kind of novelty up to the mid-1940s.
The Golden Age of plastic came after WWII. Like for most petrochemicals derived products, the 2nd half of the 20th century marked the beginning of exponential growth and production, obviously accelerated at the time by the needs and demands of the Baby Boomers (my parent's generation, born between 1946 and 1964).
To resume and list some of the major advances made in terms of plastic evolution during the 20th century (*):
- 1941 - Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is discovered in Britain and expanded polystyrene is first produced
- 1950 - DuPont begins the manufacture of polyester.
- 1951 - Polymerized propylene for the first time to produce polypropylene
- 1953 - Polycarbonate independently developed
- 1954 - Polypropylene was discovered by Giulio Natta with production starting in 1957
- 1954 - Expanded polystyrene, used for building insulation, packaging, and cup was invented by Dow Chemical.
- 1957 - Italian firm Montecatini begin large-scale commercial production of isotactic polypropylene.
Which brings us to an interesting and historical point in time, important for this Wine Blog and more particularly for this specific post about plastic:
- 1960s - High-density polyethylene (or polythene) bottles are introduced to the market and soon replace glass bottles in most applications (soap, shampoo, detergent, chemicals, etc...).
This historical point in time was the moment that started the chain reaction, which led to the ever-growing production of plastic that we have been experiencing and living ever since (until today).
Plastic, plastic and more plastic... (sigh).
For those of you who may not know, polyethylene (or polythene) is basically the most popular plastic in the world. It is the polymer used to make pretty much everything we use in our daily life, from packaging and grocery bags to most bottles (soap, shampoo, sodas, wine, etc..), as well as children's toys, and even bulletproof vests. It is a very versatile material with a very simple structure, which represents the simplest of all commercial polymers.
As of 2017, over 100 million tonnes of polyethylene resins are being produced annually, accounting for 34% of the total plastics market in the world. (***)
So, to close this brief history of plastic, in the mid-60s, after polyethylene bottles were introduced to the market, industrials rapidly understood the benefits of synthetic plastic: low cost, easy to produce and manufacture, versatile, stretchable, moldable, fairly resistant and impervious to water.
Consequently, plastics started to be heavily produced and used, as a part or as a whole, in a multitude of products and tools of different shapes, forms and scale, ranging from simple paper clips to parts of houses and other buildings and even vehicles like car, train, plane and even spacecraft.
In less than a few decades after they were first invented, plastics of all kinds have prevailed over traditional materials, such as wood, stone, horn and bone, leather, metal, glass, and ceramic, in some products previously left to natural materials. (**)
The plastics situation today
Nowadays, it is said that the global production of plastic roughly corresponds to 45 to 50kg of plastic / per person produced per year:
45 kg x 7.6 billion people = 342,000,000,000 kg = 342,000,000 metric tonnes
50 kg x 7.6 billion people = 380,000,000,000 kg = 380,000,000 metric tonnes
Which seems to be correct, as the estimation from various websites (including www.statista.com) confirms that in 2018, for example, the world plastics production totalled around 359 million metric tons.
Global Plastic production from 1950 to 2018 (in million metric tons)
courtesy of www.statista.com
FYI: a US "ton" only weight 2000 pounds = 907.1847 kg, and is therefore different than a "metric ton or tonne" which weights 1,000 kg.
That's really a LOT of plastics, don't you think?
More especially knowing that out of these 359 million metric tonnes produced per year (total from 2018 above):
- about 8 million metric tonnes (roughly 2.22%) are dumped into the oceans and seas around the globe every year
- only about 35 million metric tonnes (roughly 9.75%) is recycled
- thus, that's a whopping 90.25% (324 million metric tonnes) that is NOT recycled
Here is a comparison chart I made for you to have a better understanding of the situation and what I'm trying to say.
Global Plastic Production Dumped - Recycled - Unrecycled
by ©LeDomduVin 2020 (v2)
And they're not many solutions to get rid of the unrecycled plastics, in fact, understandably and logically, there are only 3 solutions to waste disposal: unrecycled plastics are either:
- Incinerated: as per the statistic, this method only represents between 12-15%
- Burned in specialized incinerators with smoke filters to minimize air pollution,
- Or, burned outside in open fields (with no smoke filters) which is a major source of air pollution around
- Buried: probably the most common way to do it in most countries, representing about 80-90% of most waste including plastics
- Pilled up in opened fields becoming garbage landfills on which some people live and feed as they have no other alternative if they want to survive
- Pilled underground and covered with dirt/soil, usually used as landfills for agriculture
- Dumped in water: between 2-5% depending on the source
- Dumped in rivers and lakes, ending up in oceans and seas eventually
- Dumped in oceans and seas
Here is another comparison chart I made for you to have a better understanding of the situation.
Global Waste - Plastics Disposal Methods Comparison
by ©LeDomduVin 2020
As you can see on the two charts above, the situation is quite desperate and critical, and not only for plastics but for waste in general. Yet, if I focus on plastics for this post, its because they are now used for pretty much everything and everywhere around the globe.
And despite the warnings and suggestions from the scientists and other experts for the past 20-30 years now, the production of plastics never ceased nor decreased (refer to the chart of Global Plastic production from 1950 to 2018 (in million metric tons) courtesy of www.statista.com above)
In fact, plastics are present in between 5 to 75% in most things we use daily and in most places we work, live and leisure daily.
The Packaging dilemma
So, now that we know a little more about plastic, let's move on to the main reason that prompted me to write this post: Packaging.
We now live in a sanitized and sterile world, where our immune system is no longer able to fight on his own any diseases and virus, which would have been totally harmless and insignificant to our health 30-40 years ago.
What I mean is that I grew up in the countryside drinking water from the well for more than 2 decades and I have always been in fairly good and strong health compared to most people I know.
I very rarely went to the doctor and never really had to either, unless it was really serious; which, thank god and touch wood, has never really been the case, except once, here in Hong Kong, a few years ago, when I caught the rickettsia due to a nasty tick's bite when I was hiking around.
I stayed for 10 days at the hospital and could have died as the pathogen's infection had already disseminated in my blood and contaminated several organs, more particularly my liver and was on its way to the kidneys and the lungs. A nasty Genus bacteria, I'm telling you.
However, what I'm trying to say is that back in the old days, when I was young, people strength seemed stronger and plastic was mainly used and found in reusable and recyclable products.
LeDomduVin (a.k.a. Dominique Noel)
(**) Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic
(***) Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyethylene