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Transforming Plastic: Recycling

Read about the advent of mass-produced plastics and how some are trying to change the game by inventing ways to recycle polymers.

| August 2019

plastic-bottle-beach
Photo from Adobe Stock/Alejandro

I am addicted to plastic. How can I freak out about dolphins drowning in plastic nets or seagulls eating lighters and condoms off the beach, when I give no second thought to picking up a plastic comb in an airport shop, even if I decline the plastic bag?

The word “plastic” comes from the Greek verb plassein, which means “to mold or shape.” Its flexibility derives from long, bouncy chains of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms arrayed in repeating patterns that behave like a snake’s skin.

Snakeskin is a good example because biology has been knitting these molecular daisy chains for hundreds of millions of years. The cellulose that makes up the cell walls in reptiles is a polymer. Before there were plastic Wellies and galoshes, there were snakeskin boots.



“Polymer” is Greek for “many parts”; any polymer is a long chain of nearly identical molecules. The proteins that code the stems and flowers of daisies and also code our muscles, skin, and bones and the long spiraling ladders of DNA that entwine the genetic destinies of daisies and bones are all polymers. Take some of these protein chains, rearrange them slightly, and their choreography or dancers will dictate specific characteristics, just as different dance arrangements do.

Take just a moment and let’s walk back a step. The dancing line of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen was no more than air and water, rearranged. But now we throw in chlorine and fluorine and what happens? Permanence. That substance has withdrawn from the contract with nature whereby all things must return full cycle, each with its own sunset clause.



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