Plastics: From Lingerie to Legos They Are Everywhere

Plus Mountaintop Removal and California Whales

In a Very Short Time We Have Become Awash in Plastics

On December 7, 1909, Leo Baekeland patented his newfound creation, a polymer that could be molded into any shape desired, a telephone handle, a radio, a child’s toy, even a ring for your finger.

The Belgian-born chemist had conjured the substance while he was trying to synthesize a substitute for shellac. The substance, which he called “Bakelite” after himself, is recognized as the first plastic ever produced.

Bakelite was prized at the time as it made an ideal electrical insulator, and the United States and much of the rest of the world was on a spree to install electric light bulbs, turn on radios, and enjoy things that whirred, spun, or otherwise did something when you plugged them in.

And bakelite was used to make a great deal of those new radios, and other gadgets, as it was found to hold its shape well and be resistant to heat, scratches, and solvents.

Today, thousands of different kinds of plastics are manufactured, from supple plastic grocery bags to rigid automobile bumpers. As ubiquitous as plastics are, it’s hard to imagine that it was first invented a little over a hundred years ago. Baekeland started making small batches of bakelite in a cauldron about the size of a modern washing machine. From there, plastics were used to make a limited number of products. Even from the 1950s through the 1970s, relatively little plastic was produced. That changed in the 1990s, and by the early 2000s production of plastics rose more in ten years than it had in the previous 40. By 2015 over 320 million tons of polymers, almost the entire weight of the Empire State Building, were manufactured every year.1

Scientists have discovered microorganisms that eat plastics, but otherwise plastics do not go away. Despite all those recycle bins, only about nine percent of all plastic produced has been recycled. In 2019, plastic products comprised about 16 percent of all municipal solid waste in the United States, which works out to about 27 million tons.2

Our world is now bathed in plastics. On Henderson Island, a remote, uninhabited atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, scientists found plastic items that they traced back to China, Japan, South America, Europe, the United States, and Russia. Microplastics, very tiny pieces of broken-down plastic, have been found near the summit of Mount Everest. Plastics have become so common in rivers and streams that many aquatic animals have adapted to living on them.

Plastics are not going away. Use of other materials for packaging and manufacture needs to be considered, and more work needs to be done to develop plastics that biodegrade. But what do we do until then?


A Possible Breakthrough For Plastics Recycling

A team of German scientists has found a new way of recycling plastics, one that better retains the characteristics of the original plastics, with a recovery rate of 96 percent. The recycled plastics are well-suited for injection molding and for use in 3-D printing.

Most plastics recycling is pretty rudimentary. Recyclers chop up the used plastics into tiny bits, then reform these bits into something new. The properties of the reformed plastic are not the same as the original plastic material, neither as strong nor as pliable.

According to the German scientists, recycling plastics requires high temperatures, over 600 degrees Fahrenheit, with a recovery rate of only around ten percent. The process that this team developed needs temperatures of only around 120 degrees Fahrenheit, making it less energy intensive and more sustainable.

The team was lead by Stefan Mecking, Chair of Chemical Materials Science in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Konstanz in Germany. Their results were published in the journal Nature on February 17, 2021.

The team worked out their method on polyethylene-like plastics that used plant oils in their making. More importantly, they also had success in applying this method on mixed plastics, the kinds found everywhere, from recycle bins, to beaches, to well, the whole planet Earth. The resulting recycled plastics had the same textures and performance qualities as the original materials.

Instead of the traditional physical process of recycling, the scientists developed a chemical process to treat used plastic. I did pretty well in high school chemistry, but that was a long time ago, so much of the terminology left me somewhat baffled. What I could gather was that the chemists used what they called molecular “breaking-points,” reducing the plastic polymers into smaller molecules and then reforming them into polymers.

“With our research, we want to contribute to making chemical recycling of plastics more sustainable and effective," Mecking says.

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Recycling Plastics Into Glue

Polyethylene plastic bags are useful for carrying your groceries home. But once you empty out the apples, cabbage, and ketchup, they’re pretty useless.

Scientists have found a way to turn these bags into an adhesive. The new substance retains many of the properties of the original plastic, but the chemicals added to the polyethylene make the substance sticky to metal. Latex-based paint, which usually peels off anything made of polyethylene, also adheres to the new compound. This new sticky substance could be used to coat wires or coat the metal of surgical implants such as artificial hip sockets and knee implants.

As it stands now, this new process does not promise to be immediately profitable for industrial use. However, given the advantages of cleaning up our plastics pollution, perhaps it could be subsidized by governments until economies of scale or other innovations make it profitable. Also, there may be other methods to process polyethylene to add more properties besides stickiness.

The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health. The findings were published in the journal Chem on January 14, 2021.

Excuse Me, Waiter, But What’s This Polymer Doing In My Soup?

You break for lunch, reach into the bag you packed that morning, peel off the thin aluminum top to the container of yogurt, stir up the fruit from the bottom, and enjoy a treat that is tasty and, we assume, healthful.

While you scoop another spoonful, you take a look at the ingredients: milk, culture, strawberries, sugar, etc. But is that it? Could that well-designed and colorful cup have added something to your lunch?

In the last couple of years, scientists have found that plastic molecules drift from packaging into food. This process is called “migration.”

Jane Muncke, Managing Director and Chief Scientific Officer at the Food Packaging Forum, has been sounding the alarm about plastic food packaging in recent years. She says a lot of things are unintentionally added to plastics, so there are an immense number of unknowns in our food packaging. Even less is known about those unknowns’ health effects.

It should come as no surprise that plastics contain chemicals that may be hazardous. A number of chemicals in plastics are known carcinogens, some are disruptive to the endocrine system, and some cause birth defects and miscarriages. Some of these chemicals are approved for use in the plastics that contain or wrap up the food we eat.

Of the 4,283 chemicals used in plastics manufacturing, for most of them, there are no available toxicological data.


Other News

Mountaintop Removal

Despite a surge in renewable energy, there is still a big push to blow up more mountains in Appalachia. (Salon)

Slow Down For the Whales!

The Center For Biological Diversity filed a petition with the Biden administration asking that the current voluntary 10-knot speed limit for vessels traveling through the habitats of the blue fin and humpback whales be made mandatory. Vessel strikes are one of the leading causes of death for whales off the California coast. (Center For Biological Diversity)

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"Plastics." Environmental Encyclopedia, edited by Deirdre S. Blanchfield, Gale, 2011. Gale In Context: Science, Accessed 1 May 2021.