Plastics are so ubiquitous in the modern world that most of us take them for granted. We are just used to having plastic around us. We are used to interacting with it, using it to make our lives better, and disposing of it when we no longer need it. But as much as we know about plastics, there is also a lot we don’t know.
As consumers, it is in our best interests to know as much as we can about the things we use. This includes plastics. So, here’s the million-dollar question: how much do you know about what is arguably the world’s most commonly used manufacturing material?
Plastics are, at their core, petroleum products. They are manufactured from the by-products produced during the oil-refining process. They are also polymers. That means the main ingredients in plastic are mixed with other materials that cause molecules to connect together in long polymer chains.
Those polymer chains are what give plastic its strength and durability. Suffice it to say that the chains are hard to break compared to other manufacturing materials, like wood for example.
Plastics come in dozens of varieties. Manufacturers can make different plastics with different properties, which they do based on the needs of a particular design. Some plastics are hard and rigid. Others are more flexible and forgiving. Some plastics are excellent for food storage while others, not so much.
You have undoubtedly seen different plastics identified with numbers and recycling symbols. Guess what? Those numbers are not intended for you. They never were. The numbering system was originally implemented to help manufacturers know exactly what type of plastic they were working with.
Numbers 1-6 pertain to specific types of plastic. Number 7 plastics are all those plastics that don’t fit under one of the first six categories. The numbers mean nothing to you because they aren’t there for your understanding.
Speaking of numbers and recycling symbols, did you know that the recycling symbol is misleading? Many of us have long believed that the recycling symbol designated some sort of guarantee. In other words, if we simply throw all those plastics into our curb-side bins, the items will never end up in landfills. They would be recycled. That is not true.
The recycling symbol simply indicates that a plastic could be recycled if someone wanted to do it. But that doesn’t mean every piece of plastic with the symbol actually gets recycled. In fact, the vast majority of plastics don’t get recycled. More than 90% end up in landfills and incinerators.
Finally, scientists and engineers are continually developing new plastics. For example, the material we commonly refer to as carbon fiber is actually a carbon fiber reinforced plastic. There are also bio-plastics made by combining plastic resins with natural fibers for reinforcement. It is amazing what science has come up with over the years to make plastics stronger, lighter, and more durable.
Plastic is part of modern life. We have become so dependent on it that getting rid of it is impossible. But there is no need to eliminate plastic anyway. Whatever problems it causes can be solved with appropriate solutions. We just need to come up with those solutions.