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Plastics 101 | National Geographic

plastics have become such an entrenched
part of our lives but what exactly is
plastic and how is it made before
plastic became so ubiquitous it
underwent a transformation from being a
strictly natural product to being
synthetically and widely produced some
of the earliest uses of plastic datas
far back as 3500 years ago when the
Olmecs of Mexico used
naturally-occurring plastics sap from
gum trees to create rubber balls during
the mid 19th and 20th centuries
synthetic plastics like celluloid and
bakelite made their debut and were used
for decades on the molecular level
plastics are made of polymers which are
long flexible chains of chemical
compounds this structure allows plastics
to be easily molded and shaped
especially under heat and pressure
unlike the rubber used by the Olmecs
most of today’s plastics are man-made
and derived from fossil fuels crude oil
and natural gas are primary sources as
they provide a cheap alternative to
plastic made from plants the first step
in the production of plastic is the
extraction of crude oil and natural gas
from the ground
from there the fossil fuels are sent to
refineries where they are converted into
several products including the building
blocks of plastic ethane from crude oil
and propane from natural gas ethane and
propane are then sent to a cracker plant
to be cracked or broken down into
smaller molecules ethane produces
ethylene and propane becomes propylene
next a catalyst is mixed in which links
the molecules together and forms
polymers called resins this structure
allows plastics to be easily molded and
shaped especially under heat and
pressure polymerization converts
ethylene into the resin poly ethylene
and propylene into polypropylene these
resins are then melted cool down and
chopped up into pre-production plastic
pellets known as nurdles myrtles are
later transported to manufacturers who
use heat to mold the nurdles into
different types of plastic products many
of those products actually feature
information about their manufacturing
process numbers called resin
identification codes are often featured
indicating which chemicals were used to
make the plastic because of plastics
utility its global production has
doubled about every decade the amount of
plastics produced since 1950 has
measured at about nine point two billion
tonnes the weight of nearly 1,600 Great
Pyramids of Giza much of this plastic
ends up as trash single-use plastics
such as straws grocery bags and
packaging products are particularly
detrimental they often aren’t recycled
and constitute about 40% of all plastic
waste they end up damaging natural
habitats endangering wildlife and
moving forward a great way we can
counter this plastic pollution is to
reduce the amount of single-use plastics
we use by opting instead for reusable
alternatives in our day to day lives
each person can make a huge impact in
helping decrease plastic waste for
plastics that are already produced other
solutions are being explored
scientists have discovered that a few
organisms are capable of breaking down
plastic material wax worms and mealworms
for example can devour plastics and turn
them into compost another plastic
consuming organism is a microbe which
shrinks the time plastic takes a degrade
from hundreds of years to only a few
days change is happening in the
production of plastics as well with some
manufacturers turning back to plants for
ingredients called biodegradable bio
plastics these materials are as durable
as synthetic plastics come from
renewable resources and can therefore
biodegrade even the rubber tree the same
plant used by the Olmecs is once again
being sourced for plastic today the
trees latex is used to create a range of
products such as all-natural latex
rubber gloves tires and mattresses the
rubber tree itself is now part of a
global initiative for the natural and
Plastics can be found almost anywhere
but by understanding its chemical makeup
and our uses for it we can benefit from
its versatility while also being mindful
of its impact on our planet take your
pledge today to reduce single-use plastics
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