How plastic appeared in our lives

We have evolved and invented plastic items to make our lives easier, but some of these pose a big threat to us today

By Sorit Gupto
Published: Tuesday 31 March 2020

From stone to metal and from metal to non-metal, we have covered a long distance in the journey of human civilisaton. Confused? (It seems that you were not attentive enough in your history class!) Let’s take a quick recap: Stone Age was the first stage of the human civilisation, which led to the Bronze Age and then came the Iron Age (both are metals). And today, we are in the age of plastics (a non-metal).

Plastic is cheap, sterile and convenient and its invention changed our lives. But it also makes us unhappy at the same time. Plastic may seem indispensible, but we still do not know what to do with plastic waste. To cut a long story short, plastic is a necessary evil. But the story of this “necessary evil” is actually a crime thriller, or you may say a thriller turned into a crime. For most of our history, humans used materials found in nature to build things we needed, including plastic. Rubber is a natural plastic but unlike rubber, synthetic plastic is a product of petroleum.

SoritThe word petroleum comes from the Latin petra, meaning “rock” and oleum, meaning “oil”.Oil and gas are formed from remains of prehistoric plants and animals. These remains were settled at the ocean floor. Over ages, the layers of the organic material were compressed under the weight of the sediments above them. The increase in pressure and temperature in the absence of oxygen changed the organic matter into a substance called Kerogen which eventually transformed into petroleum and natural gas and as a by-product of petroleum came plastic.

In other words, it is the remains of our ancestors and ancestral ecology, which transformed into plastic. Does it mean that it is the ghost of our ancestors which is haunting us in the form of plastic pollution? Scary, isn’t it?

What is plastic?

The word plastic comes from the Greek “Plastikos” meaning “capable of being shaped or molded”. Chemically speaking, plastic is a polymer or a long, long chain of monomers. Monomer is derived from Greek word “Mono” meaning one and “Meros” meaningpart. Polymer is derived from Greek word “Poly” meaning many.

In nature, polymers exist everywhere. But it is also possible to create them from crude oil or petroleum. These are known as synthetic polymers and plastic is one of them. Synthetic polymers have extraordinary traits. They are lightweight, durable and can be given any colour and molded into almost any shape.

Today, almost everything is at least partly made from plastic. The question is if plastic is that essential to our life then why the hue and cry about its use.

Getting to the bottom of it

To find the answer, we have to go deep down to the atomic structure of plastic or the monomer, which is essentially made up of carbon and hydrogen that has a strong bond and is hard to break. Neither carbon nor hydrogen as elements individually causes problem, but it is the bond, making plastic non-biodegradable and causing plastic pollution. It is similar to how carbon and oxygen individually does not cause any problem, but when they come together to form carbon dioxide (CO2), it causes a lot of problems. We know that plants have an extraordinary and unique ability to break down the bond between the carbon and oxygen atoms in carbon dioxide, the natural way to get rid of excess carbon dioxide in the air. But unfortunately, no plant/animal/bacteria exists has the ability to break down the bonds between carbon and hydrogen atoms of the monomer of plastic. This makes plastic not only non-biodegradable but virtually indestructible. Moreover, in exposure to ultra violet rays of sunlight, plastic breaks down into very small pieces known as micro plastics. Because of its miniscule size, in the coming days, micro plastics are going to be the biggest challenge for life on Earth. And remember since it’s made up of plastic, it’s indestructible.

Waste management–human style

Thanks to the excellent natural mechanism of the food chain, everything gets consumed in nature. We have taken for granted that like any other waste, nature will take care of our plastic waste as well. But nature doesn’t have a mechanism to consume plastic. For the first time in history, the responsibility of managing our waste has come to us–the producers. Not only are we unprepared but we are still in the state of denial. Instead of taking care of plastic waste we choose to just dump it.

We dumped our plastic garbage in our backyards, created mountains of garbage on the outskirts of our big cities and even exported it to poorer countries. When we were left with no space there, we suddenly discovered a new dumping ground which covers two-thirds of our planet–our oceans.

The story of plastic is full of thrill–there’s the ancient past, the decaying microbes, plants and animals turning into petroleum and so on so forth. But there is also crime–the pollution caused by plastic. Now if there is a crime, there must also be a culprit to be held accountable. But who is it? Let’s arrange the characters of this story according to their appearance in it:

1. Ancient plants/animals/microbes
2. Crude oil/Petroleum
3. The tough bond between carbon and hydrogen in monomers
4. Food chain
5. Nature
6. Human beings

Hint- Characters 1 to 5 are innocent. No prize for guessing the culprit.

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