Plastic facts

Read up on plastic pollution


Introduction to plastics

What are plastics?

Plastics is the term commonly used to describe a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that are used in a huge and growing range of applications. Everywhere you look, you will find plastics. We use plastic products to help make our lives cleaner, easier, safer and more enjoyable. We find plastics in the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, and the cars we travel in. The toys we play with, the televisions we watch, the computers we use and the DVDs we watch all contain plastics.

Plastics are organic materials, just like wood, paper or wool. The raw materials used to produce plastics are natural products such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil. Plastics have become the modern material of choice because they make it possible to balance today’s needs with environmental concerns.

The term ‘’plastic’’ is derived from the Greek word ”plastikos”, meaning fit for moulding. This refers to the material’s malleability, or plasticity during manufacture, which allows it to be cast, pressed, or extruded into a variety of shapes – such as films, fibres, plates, tubes, bottles, boxes, and much more.

When were plastics discovered?

The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. The growing popularity of billiards had put a strain on the supply of natural ivory, obtained through the slaughter of wild elephants. By treating cellulose, derived from cotton fiber, with camphor, Hyatt discovered a plastic that could be crafted into a variety of shapes and made to imitate natural substances like tortoiseshell, horn, linen, and ivory.

This discovery was revolutionary. For the first time human manufacturing was not constrained by the limits of nature. Nature only supplied so much wood, metal, stone, bone, tusk, and horn. But now humans could create new materials. This development helped not only people but also the environment. Advertisements praised celluloid as the savior of the elephant and the tortoise. Plastics could protect the natural world from the destructive forces of human need.

The creation of new materials also helped free people from the social and economic constraints imposed by the scarcity of natural resources. Inexpensive celluloid made material wealth more widespread and obtainable. And the plastics revolution was only getting started.

The Development of New Plastics

In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, meaning it contained no molecules found in nature. Baekeland had been searching for a synthetic substitute for shellac, a natural electrical insulator, to meet the needs of the rapidly electrifying United States. Bakelite was not only a good insulator; it was also durable, heat resistant, and, unlike celluloid, ideally suited for mechanical mass production. Marketed as “the material of a thousand uses,” Bakelite could be shaped or molded into almost anything, providing endless possibilities.

Hyatt’s and Baekeland’s successes led major chemical companies to invest in the research and development of new polymers, and new plastics soon joined celluloid and Bakelite. While Hyatt and Baekeland had been searching for materials with specific properties, the new research programs sought new plastics for their own sake and worried about finding uses for them later.

Plastics Come of Age

World War II necessitated a great expansion of the plastics industry in the United States, as industrial might proved as important to victory as military success. The need to preserve scarce natural resources made the production of synthetic alternatives a priority. Plastics provided those substitutes. Nylon, invented by Wallace Carothers in 1935 as a synthetic silk, was used during the war for parachutes, ropes, body armor, helmet liners, and more. Plexiglas provided an alternative to glass for aircraft windows. A Time magazine article noted that because of the war, “plastics have been turned to new uses and the adaptability of plastics demonstrated all over again.”[1] During World War II plastic production in the United States increased by 300%.

The surge in plastic production continued after the war ended. After experiencing the Great Depression and then World War II, Americans were ready to spend again, and much of what they bought was made of plastic. According to author Susan Freinkel, “In product after product, market after market, plastics challenged traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture.”[2] The possibilities of plastics gave some observers an almost utopian vision of a future with abundant material wealth thanks to an inexpensive, safe, sanitary substance that could be shaped by humans to their every whim.

How much plastics are we producing?

Plastic pollution, where does it come from? After the discovery of various plastics in the first half of the 20th century, mass production really lifted off in the 1960s. From just 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014. The western world developed its system of mass consumerism because of the low production price and many positive aspects of various plastics (waterproof, non-conductive to electricity, highly durable). This allowed the general public to obtain things like cars and televisions at affordable prices. But it also led to the economic profitability of single use items such as cutlery, food and drink containers, and plastic bags which in turn led to a vast increase in our general waste production.

What are we using those plastics for?

40 percent of plastic produced is packaging, used just once and then discarded.

Why is plastic fantastic?

Why were some animals happy with the arrival of plastic?

Hunting pressure decreased.

What are the qualities of plastic?

Plastics generally have: resistance to corrosion and chemicals, low electrical and thermal conductivity, high strength-to-weight ratio, colors available in a wide variety and transparent, resistance to shock, good durability, low cost, are easy to manufacture, resistant to water and have low toxicity.

What benefits does plastic have for society?

Plastics contribute to the health and safety of consumers in food and water packaging applications. Water has become a critical focus in urban areas, and plastics provide the mechanism for the supply and storage of clean drinking water. Additionally, plastics are lightweight, easy to manufacture and are installed in a range of diverse water control and distribution systems (e.g. sewerage, storm water, land drainage and irrigation). Plastic food packaging allows safe, time-dependent storage of fresh produce and other food, using temperature and atmosphere control inside the package (using gas-flush packaging and oxygen scavenger technology). In addition, the quality of packaged foods (especially time–temperature history) can be monitored with low-cost indicator labels built into the packaging (M. A. Neal 1990–1995, personal communication).



The problems with plastics

How much plastic ends up in nature?

We estimate that 8300 million metric tons (Mt) as of virgin plastics have been produced to date. As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 Mt of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050.



How long do plastics stay in the environment?

Drop a ketchup bottle on the floor, and you’ll be thankful for polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, the nearly indestructible plastic used to make most containers and bottles. Drop the same bottle into a landfill, however, and you might have second thoughts. Why? Because petroleum-based plastics like PET don’t decompose the same way organic material does. Wood, grass and food scraps undergo a process known as biodegradation when they’re buried, which is a fancy way of saying they’re transformed by bacteria in the soil into other useful compounds. But bacteria turn up their noses at plastic. Load their dinner plates with some plastic bags and bottles, and the one-celled gluttons will skip the meal entirely.

Based on this logic, it’s safe to argue that plastic will never biodegrade. Of course, that’s not the end of the story. Daniel Burd, a student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute, recently demonstrated that certain types of bacteria can break down plastic. His research earned the top prize at the Canada-wide Science Fair, earning him $10,000 cash and a $20,000 scholarship [source: Kawawada].



80% of marine plastic pollution comes from inland through wind and waterways

You might expect human activity on and near the oceans to be the main source of plastic pollution. However, it is estimated that over 80% of plastics in the oceans come from land based-sources through wind and waterways. You might think that that discarded bag in your inland city will be cleaned up by someone later on, but it may well be that it is blown into a stream or river before then and transported downstream to the sea. The choices we make in cleaning up after ourselves are key, even if we live hundreds of miles from the coast.

Plastics will remain in the environment long after we are gone

Precisely the properties which make plastics great in their day to day use make them very persistent when they enter the environment. Their weather resistance and durability mean that they do not break down completely for vast periods of time(possibly up to hundreds of years). The vast majority of the plastics that we have released into the seas and have not retrieved in some way is still there. As marine plastic pollution is increasing dramatically, we are adding more and more to this amount every day.

Plastics fragment into ever smaller particles

Although plastics cannot break down completely (known as mineralization) due to their durable nature, a combination of UV radiation, wave activity, and animal consumption does fragment them to ever smaller particles. These particles dubbed micro-plastics (smaller than 5 millimeter) or even nano-plastics (smaller than 1 micrometer) form an omnipresent plastic soup in the oceans which may well affect marine life in unforeseen ways.

Plastics are consumed by many different marine animals

As plastics flow around the oceans, they are mistaken for food items by many marine animals ranging from tiny krill to the largest whales. It was recently found that this is in part due to the algae growing on the plastics which release a sulphurous smell as they break down. Since these algae form the basis of all life in the oceans, animals have learned to link this smell to food as it attracts small shrimps like krill which attract small fish , which attract larger fish etc. Currently more than 200 animal species have been documented as consuming plastic pollution with for example many turtle and seabird species as dramatic examples. It is of course important to remember that there is a research bias towards species that are interesting to us. There is a severe lack of data on the multitude of fish species as well as the vast array of invertebrates which form the majority of marine life. The consumption of plastics can lead to a blockage of the digestive system leading to starvation as has been found in many seabirds, but it may also lead to the leaching of toxic chemicals from the plastics into the animals since plastic particles take up vast amounts of other chemicals which can then be released as the animal attempts to digest the plastic particles.

Plastics act as sponges to other toxic chemicals we have released into the seas

Due to their chemical properties, plastics can easily bind other chemicals to them. Together with plastics, we have released a multitude of chemicals into the seas ranging for example from pesticides to heavy metals to flame retardants. As these toxins bind themselves to plastic particles, their concentration increases strongly compared to that in the general ocean. As the plastic particles are eaten by marine life, these toxins enter the ocean’s food webs including the fish we like to eat. These chemicals may well have detrimental effects on basic biological processes regulated through genes and hormones.


There is currently no feasible way for us to remove the plastics from the oceans

Although there are currently initiatives underway to develop technologies for the removal of plastics from the ocean surface, we should not expect a complete solution in the foreseeable future. The sheer enormity of the world’s oceans and the amount of plastics in them will make even partial removal a monumental task and designs large enough to potentially make a significant impact which are currently proposed face feasibility criticisms. We should of course continue to develop techniques on which we can build in the future, but the projects currently under development should not be seen as a miracle cure. One major issue with projects aimed at scooping plastic from the ocean surface is that they will be scooping many types of marine life with it, for example algae and zooplankton. These small forms of life form the basis of all life in the open ocean and any technique should make sure they are not significantly impacted. Next to that, there are estimates that the majority of plastics in the oceans are not present at the open ocean surface, but are eaten by animals, or sink down to deeper levels due to growth of plants and animals on them, or just because they are types of plastics with less buoyancy. Next to the development of new technologies for removing the plastics from the oceans it is key that we act first and foremost on the continued release of our plastic waste into the oceans. Reducing the gigantic amount of plastics being released into the oceans every year begins with each of us at home, or outdoors thinking about how we are using and disposing of plastics.

Prevention is cheaper than cleaning the oceans

Even if we would have technologies available which would allow us to remove the plastic pollution from the oceans, the cost will be enormous due to the sheer size of both the oceans and the amount and nature of plastics already present. However, we can reduce these future costs by acting now in reducing plastic pollution in our day to day lives. Developing a circular economy and reducing our everyday use of especially single use plastics will take some effort, but the costs to society will be a fraction of what will be needed to clean our oceans when we remain on our current trajectory. Many changes you can make in your own life do not even need to cost anything, or will earn themselves back as your investment in re-usables allows you to stop buying single use containers.

Where does the term 'plastic soup' come from?

Charles J. Moore is an oceanographer and racing boat captain known for articles that recently brought attention to the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch‘. He is also the founder of Algalita Marine Research and Education.

In 1997, while returning to southern California after finishing the Los Angeles-to-Hawaii Transpac sailing race, he and his crew caught sight of trash floating in the North Pacific Gyre, one of the most remote regions of the ocean, a vortex (rotating ocean current) that is mostly avoided by sailors because of the lack of wind. He wrote articles about the extent of this garbage, and the effects on sea life, which attracted significant attention in the media.

“As I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean,” Moore later wrote in an essay for Natural History, “I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.” An oceanographic colleague of Moore’s dubbed this floating junk yard “the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” and despite Moore’s efforts to suggest different metaphors — “a swirling sewer,” “a superhighway of trash” connecting two “trash cemeteries” — “Garbage Patch” appears to have stuck.

His 1999 study showed that there was six times more plastic in this part of the ocean than the zooplankton that feeds ocean life.[3] In 2002, a later study showed that even off the coast of California, plastic outweighed zooplankton by a factor of 5:2. These numbers were significantly higher than expected, and shocked many oceanographers.

Captain Charles Moore discovered the plastic soup in 1997 and gave it its name.

Algalita gave the name the South Pacific Garbage Patch to the high concentration of plastic that it recently discovered in the South Pacific Ocean. The South Pacific Garbage Patch covers an area of at least one million square kilometers, which is larger than the surface area of Germany and France combined. Most of the plastic consists of microplastics such as microbeads, microfibers from clothing, and small fragments from weathered large pieces of plastic.

In 2009, Algalita recorded six kilos of plastic for every kilo of plankton in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The ratio of plastic to plankton is not yet known for the South Pacific Garbage Patch. However, Charles Moore expects that the amount of plastic there is about 10 years behind the northern gyre.

The difference in the amount of plastic used between the northern and southern hemispheres could explain this. Europe and the United States of America have used huge amounts of plastic for years, while regions such as South America and Asia are now catching up.

According to the researchers, the solution lies in reducing the amount of plastic that people produce, use and dispose of around the world. It is important to stop plastic leakage into the environment at source. This is the only way that we can ultimately stop plastic from entering the ocean. Once it is in the ocean, it is virtually impossible to remove.


Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made - Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law


Dutch infographic used in mobile exposition: numbers on plastic pollution