From Oil to Plastic

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Throughout World War II, fossil fuels were considered a vital necessity, necessary to  operate the vast amount machinery used for battle and transport. Needless to say, the oil companies profited greatly during the war, and when it ended, the vast demand for crude oil diminished. Oil companies were desperate to fill the financial void.

When resources like nylon, rubber, and steel became scarce during WWII, synthetic plastic had become a welcome alternative. By refining petroleum, plastics were created and manufactured to fill a variety of needs. America was in a financial boom, and the concept of disposable plastics quickly gained popularity. During the 1950s and 60s, advertisements began to take on new forms, as well, from TV commercials to new product packaging. One of the first things to go was the paper straw in favor of the new, bendable plastic straw… still sometimes wrapped in paper. Then came plastic grocery bags, plastic bottles, plastic picnic-ware that could simply be tossed away when done, instead of lugging the plates and cups back home to be cleaned.

In the 1960s, the first observations of plastic pollution in the oceans and on shores were recorded.[1]

Today, plastic is everywhere.

 

Some facts:

-Plastics from crude oil often requires over 100 MJ/Kg to be produced. Producing silicon consumes even more energy, up to 235 MJ/Kg. For reference, paper requires 25-50 MJ/Kg.[2]  When plastic is burned, it emits chemicals including carbon dioxide, which is depleting our ozone layer. When plastic is thrown away, it ends up in landfills, where it takes thousands of years to decompose.

–  50% of all plastic created is used just once and thrown away.[3]

-The Great Pacific Garbage Patch off the coast of California literally a giant mass of garbage twice the size of Texas, with plastic pieces outnumbering sea life six to one. 90% of oceanic pollution is made up of plastic.[4]

-Seawater absorbs dangerous chemicals found in plastic, like PCBs, DDT and PAH. “These chemicals are highly toxic and have a wide range of chronic effects, including endocrine disruption and cancer-causing mutations. The concentration of PCBs in plastics floating in the ocean has been documented as 100,000 to 1 million times that of surrounding waters.”[5] When these chemicals are ingested by marine life, the toxins are absorbed into their body and passed up the food chain in a processed called bioaccumulation. This is why apex species have such heavy concentrations of toxins in their system, like the Bluefin tuna.

-BPA is a common chemical found in plastics ranging from straws to baby bottles. BPA is an endocrine disruptor.  According to the WebMD, “the FDA expressed ‘some concern’ about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate glands in fetuses, infants, and young children.”[6] 90% of Americans have BPA in our bodies. We are exposed directly, through dust, water, and the air.

 

Works Cited:

[1] https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics. Accessed 26 June 2018.

[2] http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/what-is-the-embodied-energy-of-materials.html. Accessed 26 June 2018.

[3] https://plasticoceans.org/the-facts/. Accessed 26 June 2018.

[4] https://www.ecowatch.com/. Accessed 25 June 2018.

[5] https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/ocean_plastics/. Accessed 26 June 2018.

[6] https://www.webmd.com/children/bpa. Accessed 26 June 2018.

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