Paper or Plastic
There is growing concern about the vast amount of plastic materials in our environment. Plastic bags and other products often end up in landfills, but do not degrade rapidly. Some cities have put a ban on the use of plastic grocery bags. The manufacture of plastics requires a large percentage of the petroleum products we use. New approaches to plastic use and recycling need to be developed so we can conserve natural resources and decrease environmental pollution.
Why It Matters
- “Plastic” is a generic term for a class of long-chain organic polymers that consist of repeating units (monomers). These repeats may be short, as in ethylene (two carbons), or more complex, as in styrene (a benzene ring with a two-carbon side chain). The molecules are generally synthesized by stepwise addition of the monomer to the end of the growing chain. Many plastics do not have a defined crystal structure – these are amorphous solids.
- Because they are lightweight and relatively non-reactive, plastics can be used in a variety of applications. One major use is in packaging, involving plastic bags for groceries or other purchased items, plastic wrap for food storage, and clear plastic packages for easy display of the contents. Plumbing utilizes a variety of plastics pipes. Cars and trucks increasingly have plastic body components, making body repair easier – just replace the part.
- In 2011, the U.S. produced approximately 32 million tons of plastic. Only 8% of this production was recycled. Some 11% of plastic bags and related materials were recycled, but some forms of plastic bottles and jars had a recycle rate of close to 30%. In a landfill, many plastics may take 1000 years to break down, sometimes releasing harmful by-products. Plastics in the ocean are exposed to sunlight and can break down in a year, but still release materials harmful to living creatures.
- Watch a video that illustrates some processes of plastic recycling: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6hzhKmw4EY
Show What You Know
Use the links below to learn more about recycling of plastics. Then answer the following questions.
- What are some sources for the organic chemical used to make plastics?
- What are thermoplastics?
- What is the second-largest consumer of plastics?
- Why are plastics preferred for plumbing and related applications?
- How is Coca-Cola working to reduce the cost of their soft drink containers?