Written by Madhav Bahl, a grade 8 student
Humans have been using plastics forever – in their natural form. A thousand years before Christ, people in Mexico played with balls made of rubber – a natural polymer (kind of plastic).
But, about 100 years ago (in 1907) the plastics started being produced from fossil fuels. After World War II the production and use of plastics became widespread and led to the plastics, modern age where life without plastics seems impossible.
Plastics, however, are not all bad. It has led to revolutions that have made modern life possible – think life-saving medicines, space travel, transportation, cars, and all the equipment that we use today.
Use and throw culture
The problem is that plastics have led to a culture of single-use and throw away, which is what is the leading cause of pollution. Did you know that 40 percent of the plastic produced every year is for single-use? Products like plastic bags take hundreds of years to decompose!
Imagine this – Every year, some 8 million tons of plastic waste enters our oceans!
According to a study the amount of plastic waste flowing into the ocean and seas which would kill marine life could triple in the next 20 years unless companies and governments can drastically reduce plastic production so this the stakes are not going to be higher.
China is the top source of plastic bottles, bags, and other products clogging up global sea lanes according to the latest country-wise data available.
Around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute while up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year.
So, what can be done?
Some cities (and countries) are banning single-use plastics. For example in Lachen, a village in Sikkim, tourists are banned from bringing in plastic bottles or disposing of plastic trash, and the message is spread by taxi drivers who ferry them in. Plastic bottles were replaced with bamboo bottles. Now Lachen is one of the cleanest towns in India.
The Super Enzymes
Now, scientists have found a new approach to fight plastic pollution. They found that Super Enzymes, enzymes that are derived from bacteria, can eat plastic. Unlike the natural degradation process of plastic which pollutes the land and other organisms like earthworms etc, which takes about hundreds of years, this enzyme can convert plastic to its raw materials or components in a few days.
The super-enzyme was created by combining two separate enzymes, both of which were found in the plastic-eating bug discovered at a Japanese waste site in 2016.
Now, here’s a little history about what plastics are and how modern-day plastic was invented
What are plastics?
The word polymer is sometimes used to describe plastics. Polymers are defined as “materials made of long, repeating chains of molecules”. Plastics are synthetic (not natural) polymers. The shape of the polymer is what gives plastic its plasticity – which is what allows it to be molded into any shape.
So, who discovered plastics?
The truth is that humans have been using (natural) plastics for a long, long time.
In medieval times, for instance, people made things out of animal horns. Horn is made of keratin, which is a mixed carbon-nitrogen polymer. If you go back even further – say more than a thousand years before Christ, we find that people in Mexico played with balls made of rubber – a natural polymer.
There must have been a first person to make the first version.
So, there a few people whose discoveries and innovations led the way to the making of plastic as we know it today.
In the 18th Century, a European, French explorer called Charles-Marie de La Condamine made a discovery. He found a rubber tree in the Amazon basin.
Then around the 1840s an American Charles Goodyear and the British Thomas Hancock did some experiments – treating rubber with sulphur to make it stronger. This was called “vulcanization”, which eventually led to tyres being made for cars.
Then another breakthrough took place – cellulose, which became the raw material for plastics. This was invented by British inventor Alexander Parkes.
The big breakthrough
However, the big breakthrough that led to the start of the plastics era took place in 1907. This is when a Belgian-American chemist invented something called Bakelite.
It was the first synthetic plastic – one that was not made of extracts from plants or animals but was made from fossil fuels.
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