A Polymer Problem: How Plastic Production and Consumption is Polluting our Oceans
Authors: Abigail Hogan and Alexander Steinbach, Staff Editors, Vermont Journal of Environmental Law.
I. The history of plastic production
Typically, when a new product comes on the scene, it takes several generations to evaluate its use and environmental impact. However, synthetic plastics really only began to take over around 50 years ago, and we’re already seeing a movement to ban, or at least drastically reduce, the material. Why has plastic made such a splash in so little time?
Plastic was originally developed from cellulose, or plant material. But in 1907, the first fully synthetic plastic was created. The difference between these two materials is that plastics made from plant material can actually break down, whereas synthetic plastic will only ever break into smaller pieces. In fact, “EPA reports that ‘every bit of plastic ever made still exists.’” Today, plastic and rubber are formed by polymers consisting of smaller units known as monomers. A vast majority of monomers are produced from petroleum and is therefore non-renewable. Around 4% of the world’s oil consumption is used as raw material in plastic production, and a similar amount is used as energy in the production process. In addition to the use of petroleum, plastic production requires the use of additives. A few chemical additives are: plasticizers, flame retardants, heat and UV stabilizers, biocides, pigments, and extenders. Several common additives are classified as hazardous according to the E.U. regulations and are classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, harmful for reproductive health, harmful to aquatic life, or having persistent negative impacts on the environment.
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