“To be easily shaped and molded,” is not only an adjective but an attitude we will need to adopt to perpetuate our love affair with plastics in our modern world. Indisputably, it is difficult to imagine human society without the use of plastics in our everyday lives. Plastics are ubiquitous in providing safety, housing, transportation, and multitudinous other uses for our society. Yet, even though plastics have been a boost for our world, it has also created a few challenges. The very nature of plastics with their beneficial ability to weather many adverse conditions, and last a long time, has created subsequent environmental problems. The beneficial characteristics of plastics are equally their downfall; their ability to withstand so many factors and not deteriorate means that unless recycled and reused, then they will build up in our environment, our landfills, and our oceans. I, personally, am enamored with plastic products in my modern life but I also enjoy very much a non-polluted Earth. Therefore, our future will require our societies ability to shape and mold ourselves and our plastic usage through recycling, reuse and ultimately rethinking the science of plastics to save our oceans, our environment, and our world.

My own experience with the science polymers and plastics, started in middle school with the ‘slime’ craze. Little did I anticipate the popularity of polymer creation and the marketing possibilities this would open for me in selling unusually pretty polymers. This mixing of sparkle glue in my bathroom sink was my first introduction to the world of polymers and the science of plastics. Polymers consist of repeating single molecule units called monomers that are bonded through polymerization to form larger repeating molecular units making a large easily shaped and molded product used by the entire world: plastic! These polymers represented the beginning of my science education and opened my eyes to realize how I had taken for granted how polymers and plastics inundate and permeate our every moment. The world is full of plastics! Practically everything I see and use daily is made with plastics. Along with the slime, plastics in general helped me to realize that my life would be less entertaining, less safe, and difficult without this manufactured substance.

I do not think I need a crystal ball to guess that the modern worlds use of plastics will cease and will most certainly increase. This product of commercial polymerization based on simple oil-based raw materials in their many finished forms have endless applications in our lives. Plastics will continue to dominate manufacturing for packaging, building, textiles, consumer products, etc. with millions of tons created across the globe. Plastics come in many different formulas depending on their end use. From water pipes to plastic bags to clear plastic panels to water bottles, the formulas will determine the moldability, the strength, weight, and recyclability of the product. On the packaging itself will be a number and code that identifies the recyclability of a plastic. Of the basic seven categories of plastic, in general, only a few can be easily reused such as PET-used to make drinking bottles, and HDPE- commonly used for shampoo containers. The other plastics such as polystyrene, polypropylene, low-density polypropylene, and polyvinyl chloride are difficult to recycle and pose a hazard with disposal in landfills. Given that there are so many types of plastics in the world, it is amazing how many are single use items meaning they are not recyclable and amazing how few people voluntarily recycle. The last item that is most surprising and worrisome as a teenager are the existence of recycle companies that gather materials for recycle but instead will decide on disposal in the ocean as an act of fraud.

Because plastics are remarkable for the safety and comfort of human life, it should go without saying that we will want to keep them. So, finding ways to ‘live’ with our plastic obsession, enabling a bridge between the beneficial and detrimental qualities must be at the forefront of that industry. Because plastic consumption is exploding across the globe with its accompanying pervasive environmental pollution, it is important to find solutions to this threat sooner rather than later. Many chemical engineers, chemists and biochemists working in conjunction with industries are searching to find a technological solution for our plastic problem. But it needs to be a bigger effort than just what science can discover if we want to have clean oceans and the ease and economy of plastic use. Our citizens not just here but around the world must cooperate to recycle, reduce and reuse particular kinds of plastics such as the decrease of single use plastics, more recyclable plastics and honest companies that will actually recycle and not horrifically just haul away to dump at another location in our worlds ocean.

The ‘Blame Game’, blaming industry for pollution, blaming countries for dumping, blaming consumers for not recycling or buying non-recyclable plastics is an inefficient use of our time. It is just like most human nature that bringing people to task and blaming has had the opposite effect. Instead, examining why an action is being performed and looking at the root cause is a better use of our time. Looking at the root cause will also shine a light on other avenues to pursue to fix the inundation of plastics in our environment. The root cause of our use of plastics is many folds. It is inexpensive for the supply chain, easy to create, dependable and pervasive for shipping purposes and product integrity. Using plastics can be said to benefit natural products such as the paper industry in so much as an equal use of paper would devastate our forests and leave a very large carbon footprint. Consumers also want products that are inexpensive, easy to transport, with a product that has not spoiled or degraded. Poor countries without infrastructure or leadership are inundated with plastics and take the easiest and maybe only available way out, which is dumping the plastics away from themselves, which might be the ocean. Therefore, with industry, governments, and the populace, I hope that an agreement through a symposium could help our world find a solution for our plastic waste problem. While technology in the plastics arena in conjunction with industry is a necessary huge step for mitigation of environmental pollution, there needs to be a concerted effort by both industry and the public. Hand in hand, in lockstep, with leadership and economic opportunity, this could lead to the benefits we enjoy with plastics without the harm. For instance, engineering the polymers that make up plastics to readily breakdown in certain conditions is one possible avenue to decrease waste. Creating polymers by learning from natural biopolymers could be another avenue to explore. But technology can not do it all alone. The population will need guidance and encouragement to take seriously a global effort to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastics.

What can you do to reduce plastics in the ocean? First, become knowledgeable about your own personal plastic use. Awaken to what a plastic is and how pervasive they are in your life. Learn and read because knowledge is power. Connect with your community, government and the plastics industry because having a voice is the only way to be heard. Become a chemical engineer and help invent new products that will be wildly popular and save our world. Become an elected official to help organize and provide efficient and fair leadership for our population and the industries. But last of all, learn which plastics are recyclable, where the recycle center is, what they will accept and then do it…Recycle! Change your habits; for instance, use water bottles that have multiple uses instead of plastic throw away bottles. Plastic boxes that can be washed and reused for leftovers and lunch. Decrease plastic bag use in whatever means possible. Buy in bulk in containers that can be reused. Insist on using recycled products. Also, as it is becoming clear, if plastic is to be recycled and reused, the recycle industries must be available and policed to collect and recycle. Let us not forget the plastic that has already invaded our waters. First, we need to stop the pollution, then gather to clean and properly recycle and dispose. This can be done, with knowledge, and leadership. Really it must be accomplished if we want to enjoy our lives on this big blue world.

Finally, as an ending thought, we as human beings are pliable, we can mold our own expectations and shape our tomorrows with plastics using smart engineering principles, far reaching public policy and public cooperation that will give us the best of all the worlds, beautiful oceans, a clean environment, and a material that can help us prosper on this planet.

Essay by: Riley Eisenbraun
Olathe North High School

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