©Molekuul/AdobeStock
©Molekuul/AdobeStock

Global focus on… polymers

Can you imagine a world without plastic? These man-made polymers have become an integral part of life on Earth, but they may also bring it to an end

Definition

A polymer is a molecule made of many repeated sub-units. It can be naturally forming, as in horn, hair and rubber, or artificially created. It is a polymer’s chain structure that enables it to be shaped into so many applications.

History

The first man-made plastic – celluloid – was unveiled in 1862. In 1907 chemist Leo Baekeland invented the first synthetic polymer, Bakelite, later coining the term ‘plastics’.

Raw materials

Oil and natural gas are used to make plastics. Through ‘cracking’, ethylene and propylene are created, then processed to make monomers that are bonded into chains to form polymers with a range of characteristics.

Plastic types

Plastics fall into two groups: thermoplastics and thermosets. Thermoplastics, the majority, can be heated and reformed repeatedly. Thermosets cannot be reformed – once they are set, reheating will cause the material to decompose. 

Additives

Plastics can be mixed with additives to alter properties such as colour, flame resistance, softness, flexibility and surface texture. Additives add cost to the production process, hence the brittle scratchy plastics found in the dashboards of budget cars.

Construction methods

Plastic pellets are melted and forced through a small opening to form films and bags – extrusion – or pushed into a mould. Bottles are created by blowing melted pellets onto the inside of a mould.

Controversy

Scientists have calculated that 8.3bn tonnes of plastic have been produced since the 1950s and 6.3bn tonnes have become waste. Just 9% has been recycled and 79% has ended up in landfill. 

Bans

The UK is set to ban all single-use plastics such as straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and has already banned microbeads in cosmetics and imposed a 5p tax on plastic bags. Other countries have introduced similar measures.

What They Say

“Nature works with five polymers… In the natural world, life builds from the bottom up, and it builds in resilience and multiple uses.” 
Janine Benyus, natural sciences writer

“Plastics have transformed almost every aspect of life. Without them, much of modern medicine would be impossible… and the consumer electronics and computer industries would disappear.”
Norman Billingham, Professor of chemistry, University of Sussex, 1996 

“There is a malign force loose in the universe that is the social equivalent of cancer, and it’s plastic. It infiltrates everything. It’s metastasis… There won’t be anything that isn’t made of plastic before long.”
Norman Mailer, Author, 1983

Analysis

Plastics have revolutionised industrial production but the focus has now shifted to their environmental impact. Polymers break down into smaller pieces but monomers, like the oil from which they derive, do not decompose in the natural environment. Scientists have calculated that replacing plastic consumer goods with alternatives would increase their environmental cost 3.8 times, based on the fact that plastic is lighter and more of the alternatives, such as glass, tin, aluminium and paper, would be needed. They recommend lowering plastic production costs, developing more efficient packaging and better waste management and recovery.

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