What on earth is plastic anyway, and how do we clean it all up?

On a daily basis, internet users see videos illustrating in painful detail the effects plastic waste has had on marine life, on other animals, or on the environment. It’s become clear that much effort has been put into producing plastic and not enough into cleaning up the waste that is left behind.

Perhaps because of this heightened exposure, people and organizations are thinking of ways to stem the problem and come up with solutions that are more viable in the long run. But there is still a long way to go.

With that in mind, it can do little harm to learn a bit more about plastic: what it is, how it is produced, and not least of all, how to clean it up.

Getty Images | Jeffrey Phelps

What is plastic?

There are different types of plastic, some natural and some synthetic. Both the ancient Chinese and ancient Mayan cultures extracted latex and lacquer from trees to produce a variety of natural plastic items such as ornate boxes, furniture, and other lacquerware.

Practically all the plastic we use today, though, is synthetic, and is made from fossil fuels rather than from plants. In terms of synthetic plastics, there are two types: those made from crude oil, and those made from natural gas.

Both of these types are composed of polymers, long, flexible chains of chemical compounds, which makes their products easily shaped with the use of heat and pressure.

Chinese lacquerware: a round tray with a dragon from the Ming Dynasty (left), and a round box with pheasants and peonies, also from the Ming Dynasty (right) | pubic domain


A computer-generated model illustration of a polymer | public domain

How is plastic produced?

First, crude oil and natural gas is pumped from underground to the surface and sent to a refinery, where crude oil is turned into ethane, and natural gas is turned into propane. These products are then further broken down forming smaller molecules at a cracking plant, where ethane is made into ethylene, and propane is made into propylene. At this point, a catalyst is added to them, which causes the molecules to form into chemical compounds (polymers) and form into resins.

The final product of crude oil is polyethylene, while that of natural gas is polypropylene.

Pump extracts crude oil from a well. Public domain | pxhere
Plastic pellets, called nurdles, are used by manufactures to make plastic products (left). Getty Images | avdeev007 Plastic pellets being sifted during production (right) Getty Images | ©Santiago Urquijo

Once cooled, these resins are chopped into small plastic pellets (called nurdles), which are the basic materials that manufacturers use to produce a full gamut of plastic goods.

On a global scale, hundreds of millions of tons of plastic are produced every year with production volume doubling every 10 years. Over the last 60–70 years, approximately 9 billion tons of plastic has been produced.

What happens to plastic waste?

Thousands of tons of discarded plastic has found its way into water systems, which eventually flow into the ocean. Ocean currents cause such debris to accumulate, forming huge gyres full of trash. The notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is the largest and most well-known of these gyres, though other oceans have them as well. The GPGP is three times the size of France and contains approximately 900,000 tons of waste.

Plastic debris floating on the surface (left). Getty Images | Gary Bell Plastic waste can have an extremely harmful effect on wildlife (right). Getty Images | John Cancalosi

Animals that mistake the bright-colored bits of plastic as food eat the plastic, which can kill them. Toxins are also passed up the food chain, contaminating the fish that find their way onto our tables, making this a problem that affects everyone.

Mountains of trash being compacted by a bulldozer at a landfill Public domain | Air Force Civil Engineer Center

On land, hundreds of millions of tons of plastic are discarded into landfills every year.

Around 40 percent of that waste is from single-use plastics like bags, bottles, and straws. As rainwater flows through landfills, it absorbs water-soluble compounds that can be highly toxic, and it forms into leachate and can contaminate groundwater, soil, and streams, damaging habitats and harming wildlife. This can affect both the environment as well as our drinking water, making it an issue we cannot ignore.

What are we doing about it? What can we do?

Reducing the amount of single-use plastics we use would help curtail the amount of waste—by using reusable bags instead of plastic bags, metal water bottles instead of plastic, and eco-friendly straws etc.

Recycling is another good idea. Waste plastic is compressed, shredded, washed, and melted down before it is made into pellets, once again, for reuse in manufacturing, thus cutting down on more waste.

See how plastic is recycled in this video:

There are other processes being explored as well. Microbes have been found to speed up the decomposition process of plastic from taking hundreds of years to just a few days. Organisms such as meal worms and wax worms can also eat Styrofoam and turn it into compost.

Some manufacturers are now making biodegradable disposable cutlery to take the place of plastic cutlery. Meanwhile, some producers are even going back to extracting latex from trees.

Biodegradable cutlery is an eco-friendly alternative to plastic disposable cutlery:

At the same time, there are innovations being implemented to clean up our oceans.

With all of this, if we can decide to think about being part of the solution, there seems to be hope on the horizon. In the meantime, we should still keep in mind that wildlife continue suffering and in turn so do we. All of these painful videos should spur us to make choices that lead to improvements in the world—that’s how change happens.

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