The Plastic in Our Life

While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become addicted to single-use plastic products — with severe environmental, social, economic and health consequences. Around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes – used just once and then thrown away. Plastics including microplastics are now ubiquitous in our natural environment. They are becoming part of the Earth’s fossil record and a marker of the Anthropocene, our current geological era. They have even given their name to a new marine microbial habitat called the « plastisphere ».

Certain natural substances such as rubber and silk have useful plastic-like properties. But before the invention of plastic, only metal, clay and glass, all heavy and rigid, could be molded. Rubber has many of the properties of some plastics, but it loses its ability to retain its shape after repeated stretching or bending. Natural plastic-like materials are made up of long molecular chains called polymers that are formed of simple repeating units. The invention of plastic came from studying the chemistry of those polymer chains.