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How bad are plastics for the environment?

How bad are plastics for the environment?

THis is Very rarelyThe time is right to talk about plasticsThis is what I think of when Dad hovers over the trash bin at a post funeral potluck and waves me over. His gesture is discrete, but he is very emphatic. He has pulled out from the trash a crystal plastic cup with fluted, rigid edges. He smiles and uses polystyrene to invert the cup to reveal its resin code. 6It should be stamped inside the recycling symbol But not! My kind.

Dad had made a more durable variety of polystyrene back in 1960s for Union Carbide. Union Carbide was one of the most important plastics producers of the 20th Century. AcquisitionDow Chemical Company. Now, in the parish hallway, I see that he is only seconds away from crushing the cup. As if on cue he closes the grip. He is a particular type of polystyrene and this is his point. The cup splinters into strange shards that are scattered around the cups circular bottom.

Butadiene is not requiredI think so. He said that no butadiene was added to the resin in order to rubberize it, one of the production lines he managed. 10,000Helpmates who make plastics the way we know them possible. Dad moves off to find his recycling bin, even though he knows where the cup is. There is little chanceYou can expect to recover quickly and a long afterlife. This is especially true of polystyrenes. There are many varieties. Plastics, according to Tridibesh Dey, an anthropologist. Notes, are a chemically complicated lot, intended for performance rather than reclamation.

Dad believed plastics could be reused indefinitely. Maybe he believed plastics, like their creators, could be reused indefinitely. Dad decided to leave Union Carbide in the 1970s and stay at home with my siblings until his mind could make up his mind about a life other than plastics. It turned out that Dad was a public administrator. He managed my local recycling program for a while. However, recycling never lived up to Dad’s expectations. Out of all the plastics he used in his lifetime, Below 10 percentEffectively repurposed.

Like many other aspects in our relationship with plastics this failure is often framed in terms individual shortcomings. Plastics producers and the geopolitics which have made plastics so common are rarely called to account. To read plastics history is to find another story. Plastics demand has been as manufactured and produced as the plastics themselves. The logic of desire is not the reason society is awash with throwaway plastics, but the logic of history as well as integrated industrial systems.

The industry has promoted and intensified production for decades to create the illusion that its problems can be solved.In the last two decades, plastics have become more popularIt was much more common than in the second half the 20th century. Recycling is now a common practice. flailing, failingsystem, but it is still touted as plastics panacea. No end-of-the-pipe fix can manage mass plastics Volume,Complex toxicologyOrLegacy of pollution, and the industry Long-standing infractionsHuman health and safety Rights.

All of this has been true over the years, but now is the time to discuss plastics. Plastics are poised for dominance in the 21st Century as one of the most unchecked industries. DriversClimate change.

When Dads former employer In the late 1920s, plastics were being made but there was no market for them. The company had to make plastics.

Prestone, the new commercial antifreeze it created, was synthesized using natural gas. A by-product, ethylene Dichloride, was also created from that natural gas. This chemical had no practical use and was therefore kept on-site. As one Carbide newsletter pointed out, it quickly accumulated in unmanageable and embarrassing amounts. Its best use, according to the company, was in the production of vinyl chloride monomer. This is a recognized as a carcinogenSince the 70s, but back then a building blocks for a rascally type of plastics no one had yet commercialized yetvinyls.

This is not a singular example, but rather a reminder of how product design often unfolds for plastics and chemicals. For CarbideSimilar to other 20th century petrochemical businesses, each product required a series or multistep reactions. Each step produced offshoots. These lines are developed and the product lines become more branched, eventually creating an almost fractal cascade with interrelated products. Everything that enters the system, explains Ken Geiser, an industrial-chemicals-policy scholar, in his book Materials MatterMatter, being matter, must eventually get somewhere. It is neither created nor destroyed. It must be transformed into fuel, pollution-free, or monetized. After many iterations Carbide finally arrived at Vinylite. Vinylite was created by blending two types polyvinyl chloride(PVC) with polyvinyl acetate.

An internal marketing report reveals that Carbide spent many years trying to find new customers and develop new uses for Vinylite. A credit department helped to ease the financial burden of adopting it. The company sent technical teams across the country to help manufacturers use the resin, but with little success. Similar problems were experienced by celluloid before Bakelite and polystyrene afterwards in gaining sales.

Then World War II erupted. The development of new resins was made easier by war contracts. For example, the U.S. Navy assisted DuPont and Union Carbide to obtain a British license from Imperial Chemical Industries to start manufacturing polyethylene for insulating wires and cables (enabling radar). The Manhattan Project spurredDuPont will industrialize its fluorinated plastic, which would become Teflon. Previously, batches were measured by the gram, rather than the ton. Existing resins were also matured during the war. 32 times At the end of the wars, more polystyrene had been produced than at its beginning.

But polystyrene also shared base ingredients with another material crucial to modern, mechanized warfarestyrene-butadiene rubber, or SBR. Tank treads were made of rubber. Bomber tires. The soles on the boots worn by soldiers.

large sound radar dishes outside during ww2, a tire plant during ww2
Left: A sound radar that detects approaching aircraft, 1949. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Getty) Right: During World War II, a worker in the Chrysler Corporation Dodge truck manufacturing plant. August 1942, near Detroit. (CORBIS/ Getty)

Germany’s colossal IG Farben had already been synthesizing Buna S Rubber, its coal-derived version SBR, at the time. Disruption of the natural-rubber tradingThe U.S. was forced to catch up. The historian wrote that GR-S, which is Government Rubber-Styrene in the USA, was created in a crash course of research-development. Peter J. T. MorrisIt was produced at levels that rivaled the race to develop the atom-bomb. To keep up with wartime rubber demand was styrene produced at levels that appeared incredibility high. almost unbelievable,A Dow advertisement from the 1940s reads, especially considering how difficult it was to make.

Styrene also came with its risks. It can also be used as a vinyl chloride monomer. cause cancer. The same was true for synthetic rubbers’ other main ingredient: butadiene. Another monomer was later discovered to be carcinogenic, and a chemical that is emblematic of how once-distinct industriespetroleum & chemicalsfused into petrochemicals.

The U.S. was caught between two ways to make butadiene. One was made from grain alcohol and the other from petroleum. Oil interests competed with the farm bloc to get government contracts to supply the new rubber machine. Grain held its own during the war, but afterward, the federally backed petroleum boom routed any possibility of a carbohydrate-dominated chemical-and-plastics industry. Grain harvests were deemed to be too irregular, too dependent on the seasons and to flooding and droughts, and so to price fluctuations.

In the 1950s, the government had sold its wartime rubber plants to private investors. Styrene, advertised by Dow, was acquired. Honorable discharge, so it could serve a peaceful world.Union Carbide was one of the many firms that could make styrene or butadiene in quantities far greater than what a normal rubber industry could consume. There was an outlet for excess Styrene: More polystyrene. Some would later be modified to high-impact grades. Polystyrene for dads.

Plastic cups stacked with bottles behind them
Matthew Porter Photography The Atlantic

Jeffrey Meikle, a cultural historian, writes that plastics postwar domestication happened unevenly and in fits and starts. American Plastic. The industry invested heavily in advertising to generate demand. In fact, they were one of the largest clients of advertising. It initially focused on women to teach them about plastics and how to pronounce the names that the Society of the Plastics Industry, (SPI), admitted were their jaw-breakers. (Polly and Vinny who? One 1953 pamphlet, which the SPI copublished with the women’s magazine McCalls. It is: VinePolly-sty-rene.) The industry couldn’t find new markets with, for instance, the Tupperware partyIt also underbid leather, cotton and glass to make it more competitive with established companies. Despite this, sales were so strong that Max Liboiron, a plastics scholar, was able to sell the company by the mid-1950s. has explainedThe industry was looking for growth by moving plastics out of homes and not into their homes. Through them. Plastics were destined for a bright future. Modern Packaging MagazineLloyd Stouffer, the editor, stated it. Put it in the trashcanPolystyrene was also one of the most popular. go-to resins.

Scott soon placed a series ads in Life The magazine features what the company called the “first throwaway glass” that is good enough for entertaining. The cup was made from pure porcelain-smooth, polystyrene and was, as the copy promised, 100% disposable. In the 1960s, when my dad was making plastics, the military began to buy polystyrene once more, this time to make incendiary. napalm-B, but Packaging and single-use They were becoming the biggest plastics markets. An analyst wrote that production rates were increasing with a vengeance. His sentiments were recorded in the 1971 congressional record. The science writer said that plastics were used to pick up paper items at the grocery store. These included the egg carton, bread bag, and eventually, but not easily, the grocery bag. Susan Freinkel in her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.

Consumers, MeikleExplaining, one could only choose from goods available on the market. By the end of the 20th Century, plastic was all that was available.

IMy officeMy bookshelf is lined by polystyrene cup in many shapes, sizes and colors. These were all gifts from Dad, who has an admittedly strange habit of bringing them over. Tossing them feels impossible, and recycling is better. Uncertain.

It can be difficult for people to see the web of interconnected global crises that connect commonplace cups with environmental injustices, climate change, and toxics. It can also prove difficult to pinpoint where to intervene. Yes, some plastics make goods lighter and more efficient. Additionally, plastic components can be used to make technologies that capture and disseminate renewable energy. More than a third of the world’s population is able to access renewable energy. 40 percentPlastics are now used in packaging, cups, and other products for short-term use. Despite being encouraged to use disposables whenever possible, #bringyourown,Most people have little control over how much plastic packaging they use in their daily lives. Some areas have large amounts of plastics that can be recycled. sachets) has become largely unavoidable, especially in rural and remote regions where alternatives can be either inaccessible or unaffordable.

family throwing plates plastic and paper throw away items into the air
Life magazine, 1955. A family throws aluminum foil pans, plates, straws, and lunch trays through the air to show how society has become a disposable society. (Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock)

Plastics ubiquity may not always be obvious. Google Can you clean the drain and lining? Watch the videoHow can a soda or beer bottle be submerged in drain cleaner? The cleaner will dissolve the metal layer, leaving behind a clear plastic sleeve. Better yet: Make sure to soak your next takeout cup of coffee in a bowl full of water. The paper will begin to slough off, revealing the thin layer polyethylene inside.

BThe early 1970s, 15 statesAlready, they were looking at ways to limit the rapid growth of plastic containers. The industry changed From promotion to self-defense. New York City tried to implement a two cent bottle tax but industry groups stopped it. Suffolk County reacted quickly to restrictions on polystyrene cup and other plastics. Trade groups representing industry lobby have even lobbied to get states to prevent this from happening. Plastic bags are banned. Industry and its trade associations were there to support the industry whenever polls suggested slippage or if public regulations loomed. Their ad buys have been increased.

Plastics has never been subject to the same scrutiny at any other time in its history. Two Democratic members were elected to Congress in March. LegislationTo tackle plastic pollution At least two-thirdsof United Nations member countries (including, most recently, The United States) support negotiations toward A binding treatyTo address global plastics implications. And this month The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine We called on U.S. plastics producers to reduce the volume entering commerce and, therefore, the impact on the environment. My dad was part of a push for a ban on disposable polystyrene in municipal areas.

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All these efforts question the unfettered plastic production. But there is another reason to address plastics now: the industry’s carbon-intensive production.Climate Change.

PLastics has beenA flexible industry At first, products are formedFrom raw materials like gutta-percha or wood pulp. Then, from other industries wastes, such as cotton linters and agricultural waste. Finally, from the remnant gases emitted by steels coal-to coke ovens or city gas plants. Plastics are made in a highly integrated network that includes crackers, refineries, and petrochemical plantcomplexes. These complexes have been retrofitted to tap new or better-tapped oil and gas reserves. Today, around 98 to 99 per cent of plastics are manufactured from fossil fuels.

Fossil-carbon feedstocks have historically been a distorted marketplace due to the many and varied government subsidies: technology assistance Transfer, tax breaks, grants, and soft loans Price controls, and, like described here, wartime contractwhich has shaped the plastics pricing and production in turn. The plastics industry is not awash in be able to accurately reflect the true costs of its operations, either, including the cost of what it has been burned, dumped, lagooned or landfilled, injected and spilled, incinerated, sent to the stack, or drained from the outfall pipe.

However, the nature of petrochemicals imposed its own economic imperative. Plastics Hadto be a high volume product to recoup substantial capital investments required to construct and then operate such complex facilities. They are among the most expensive, largest, and energy-intensive in the manufacturing and process industries. Another problem: More plastics, with more markets.

Plastics’ most recent expansion has been fueled by the U.S. fracking boom or what is known as the shale revolution. Fracking has made America the world’s largest producer of oil, gas, and created a glut. Kathy HippleI was told by a senior research fellow at Ohio River Valley Institute..Hipple explained that the oversupply in feedstock has driven another round in investments in plastics plants. This, in turn, has led to an excess of plastic packaging on the market than there is demand for. These plastics, primarily made from polyethylenes and copylenes, have reduced the role of polystyrene in the disposables and packaging market. 2 percent. Tongue in cheek, plastics’ latest output has become frackaging to me.

However, the economics of plastics are changing. As energy and transport Shift awayPlastics are a far cry from fossil fuels. Many oil and gas producers seem to treat them like one of the few.ChancesTo keep growing, and to keep going. Some new mega-plants, China’s Zhoushan Green Petrochemical BaseYou can convert crude oil directly into chemicals and other plastics.

This is partially why plastics would contribute more carbon to the world’s climate. Jim Vallette, the author of the aforementioned report, concluded that if U.S. production continues to grow as the industry projects it, it will surpass the climate contribution of coal-fired power stations by 2030. New Beyond Plastics Report. Or, By another measure, Current growth trends suggest that by 2050, industry emissions could account for 15% of the global carbon balance. The amount depends on the type of plastic and feedstock, but it is an average. 1.89For every metric ton plastic produced, metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (a composite measure for greenhouse gases) are produced.

Emissions come from upstream fossil fuel production and processing. However, there are concerns about the possibility of even more emissions. The other end is the life cycleShould states give green light to industry proposals for expanding such carbon-intensive technologies as incineration? Refuse-derived fuels, molecular and chemical, and so called advanced recycling. These UnprovenHigh heat and other methods are used to convert waste into feedstocks that can be used to make plastics. These technologies are changing the Landfill from the ground up to the heavensYobel Novian putra, who works on Asia Pacific climate, energy policy, and climate policy for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), says that it is possible. This has implications for both climate change and air quality.

But petrochemical production itself is also energy-intensiveamong the top-TwoThe manufacturing sector is a major energy user. Even if the industry converted to low-carbon energy sources,or to adopt problematic carbon-capture-and-storage, or CCS, technologiesAccording to analysts at, plastics will continue to be a significant emitter climate-relevant gases. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

Climate policy has not yet been implemented. Focused on manufacturing and plastics, but not on the latter.. Too often, plastics are a problem It can seem secondary in importanceAs climate disasters increase. Plastics and climate don’t have to be considered separate issues. They are structurally related problems that can also be mutually beneficial. compoundingWith plastics plants spewing climate-relevant emission and extreme weather further dispersing the plastic into our environment, Their interaction is being studied. For example, how thermal stress affects species’ responses to toxic exposures. They have the same root. Carroll Muffett, president of CIELs, explained to me that plastic is carbon and fossil fuels in another form. Or, as the geographer put it: Deirdre MacKayIt is also known as plastic It isClimate change is only in its solid state.

Scientists are still discovering how deep the layers may go. Climate-altering gases are emitted from sun-drenched plasticsHow plankton absorb microplastics. This could alter their ability to supply oxygen and sequester carbon industrial, and pull it down into the sea. These questions require research [climate]According to a report by, impacts is still in its infancy. CIEL and many other groupsHowever, early signs that plastic pollution may be interfering with the largest natural carbon sink of the planet should be a cause for concern and immediate attention.

As I think back on that funeral, I recall the cup in my hands, the waves and the grief. As wildfires burn, as their smoke reaches across continents, as waters rise to meet the sea, and amid deadly heat, cancers and extinctions it might not seem right to speak about plastics. It is. The world has no time to waste.

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