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The Environmental Impact of Plastic

Learn about the environmental dangers associated with the production and use of plastics, and why you won’t miss much by switching away from bottled water.

| October 2019

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

The Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age have been designated as the three great prehistoric and ancient eras of humankind. If a period can be defined by a transforming material, historians may someday refer to our era as the Plastics Age. But plastic isn’t only the ever-present basis for most of our products. In one form or another, the chemicals used to make plastics and the residues from them are also found widely in drinking water, whether from the tap or from bottled water.

Plastic may be the most successful example ever of turning trash into gold. In its many forms, plastic used to be mostly derived from impurities removed from crude oil in the process of refining it into gasoline, diesel, or home heating oil. It is now produced either from crude oil or, more commonly, as a by­product of natural gas. This “waste product” has evolved into a huge industry of its own. Of the $4.4 trillion in chemical sales worldwide, plastics are one of the largest segments, accounting for about $650 billion of that. In one form or another, plastic is found in more than seventy thousand products, and is used in industries as varied as automotive, packaging, computers, and aerospace, among many others.

For both good and bad, the rise of plastic mirrors the importance of the crude oil and natural gas from which it is derived. Just as these carbon fuels grew to be of extraordinary value both for those who extract them and those who use them to power industry and the world’s economies, plastic became a lucrative business while transforming global commerce. But while carbon fuels and plastic have led to countless benefits, in recent years those benefits have begun to be balanced by awareness of risks brought on by both.

Similar to the way in which oil and natural gas continue to be the world’s dominant energy sources even as the dangers of these carbon fuels become apparent, there is no other material available today that can replace plastic. Indeed, efforts to create new kinds of plastic continue in laboratories around the world. Depending on what characteristics are sought—such as flexibility, durability, weight, or temperature sensitivity, to name a few—chemists have been able to arrange molecules to achieve a dizzying variety of alternatives. Nearly all of these familiar and new plastics have a related chemical structure, but each also has enough variability that the formulation results in a different product with unique properties.

Aside from the trash that so much plastic creates, there is another problem with some types of plastic. Most of the time, exposure to plastic is believed to be benign, or, at least, having no currently known ill effect. But some of the plastics, even a few in very widespread use, have consequences beyond polluted seas and litter­filled riverfronts. They also affect human health.

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