Plastic, the material with thousand uses, was churned in the labs of Leo Baekeland in 1907. Because of its usability, it quickly became an indispensable part of human life. Plastic is everywhere. Plastic packaging keeps our food fresh, while plastic bottles prevent our liquid drinks from spilling everywhere. Moreover, your cellphone body has plastic, even your computers, and other electronic devices.
Plastic is everywhere, and we cannot avoid it. Every year, the world produces 300 million tonnes of plastic waste, equivalent to the weight of the entire human population on earth.
Now, what’s the problem?
The problem is plastic is indestructible — non-biodegradable. It is hazardous to our environment, marine life, animal, and even us.
Problem #1: Plastic Is Indestructible
Plastic is a menace to our environment, especially single-use plastic. Every minute, humans consume 2 million single-use plastic, making its yearly consumption in trillions.
Plastic became a problem because of its indestructible nature. If you look at the chemical composition of plastic, it comes from heating crude oil and other fossil materials at very high temperatures. This heating process forms strong polymers that give sturdiness and durability to plastic.
The problem is that these polymers created by carbon monomers are not found often in nature. These come from very sturdy carbon bonds.
Microorganisms in our environment have been breaking down organic matter like dead animals, leaves, or even our half-eaten sandwiches since the beginning of life. They break down substances and release nutrients from them in our ecosystem. They are imperative for maintaining the balance in our ecosystem.
So, technically, microorganisms should break the plastic and plastic waste dumped in the environment like other materials. Unfortunately, microorganisms cannot break plastic down because of the complex carbon bonds. Besides, plastic came in the 20th century and is a newer substance for microorganisms to work with.
Additionally, this plastic material is a relatively foreign material for the environment created in labs not formed in nature. Plus, it has complex carbon bonds that do not oxidize like metals.
So, plastic remains in the environment and damages it. It has been the biggest contributor to environmental degradation and climate change issues.
Problem #2: Plastic Ingestion by Animals & Humans
Since microorganisms find it hard to break carbon molecules of plastic, it remains intact in the environment even for 1000 years. Similarly, plastic is difficult to recycle due to its polymer composition. So, it is dumped in the environment where animals eat it. When plastic breaks down by animals, it releases poisonous substances. All these harmful plastics make their way to us when we consume animals that have consumed plastics.
Not only this, but when we use plastics in our food packaging or containers, we also ingest small photo-plastics from there. All these plastics can lead to various diseases, such as infertility, obesity, prostate and breast cancer, and birth defects.
Similarly, plastic buried ends up in oceans, killing marine life and contaminating our waters.
Good News | Plastic Is Now Not All Indestructible
Though the world gave up on plastics, as per recent studies, plastic decomposition is possible.
Microorganisms are evolving and becoming equipped with chemicals to work on plastics. Bacterias, called Ideonella sakaiensis in our environment can break and consume plastic like polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Similarly, research shows that sunlight can break polymers under perfect conditions in a few years.
With more evolution, more organisms would learn ways to deal with every kind of plastic.
For now, plastic is a problem that needs urgent dealing. It is time to switch to eco-friendly alternatives to protect our environment.