Plasticatastrophe: How Did We Get Here?

Business Sustainability

Published On Mon, 03 Apr 2023


Our planet is choking on plastics, but how and when did these valuable materials turn into an invasive pest? Let’s find out. 

No matter who you are or what you do, you’ve probably seen the pleas to save sea turtles from ingesting plastic straws and have likely witnessed the plague of plastic products fished out from our oceans during mass clean up sessions—that’s right, we’re at war with plastics. And yet, life without them today seems at best inconvenient, and at worst downright inconceivable. But what exactly is this material, and why is mankind so reliant on it? Here, we investigate how plastics are made and uncover their spread around the globe. 

Science of Plastics

Plastics are polymers, or long molecular chains of monomers, that come in two forms—natural and synthetic, the latter being our focus.   

The first step in plastic production is extracting and refining raw materials such as crude oil and natural gas to obtain ethane and propane. Next, the gaseous mixture undergoes a process called cracking, where it’s subjected to extreme heat, forming the monomers ethylene and propylene[1]. Further processing creates small polymer resin pellets that are then melted and moulded into the countless plastic products that we depend on everyday, from plastic bags (polyethylene) to styrofoam (polystyrene). 

What makes plastics so desirable is their versatility, allowing them to be adapted for countless applications. The length of its polymer chains makes it such that they are not only flexible, but lightweight and strong too.

The possibilities are endless with polymers that can be applied into almost any commercial, industrial, and personal undertaking.

Taking Over the World One Bottle at a Time 

So when did this whole plastic craze start, you may ask? Well, it actually dates back more than a century ago when Bakelite, the first truly synthetic polymer made from phenol-formaldehyde was invented in 1907. With the increasing scarcity of natural resources brought about by World War II, plastics naturally became the ideal substitutes and has since continued growing in popularity. 

Despite the enormous amount of energy and resources required for production, plastics are still one of the cheapest materials out there. It’s no wonder they quickly saw global adoption in just a few decades. Today, plastics are so deeply ingrained into modern life, in construction, packaging, textiles, and electronics; in fact, they’ve even found their way into unexpected items like toothpaste, chewing gum, and skincare products.  

From Mass Production to Mass Pollution 

But too much of anything, good or bad, can be harmful; the same can be said for our trusty plastics. For a material that’s so beneficial, it sure is destructive. In fact, plastics take hundreds of years to degrade, which means that the collective plastic waste that has been accumulating since the days of Bakelite haven’t really gone away. Shocking, right?  

Well, you might be even more appalled to hear that in 2021 alone, a whopping 390.9 million metric tons of plastics were produced globally[2]. To put that into slight perspective, that’s about 62,000 Marina Bay Sands buildings in mass!  

Despite modern technology and knowledge enabling us to better handle the plastics we use, less than 10% of the world’s plastic waste gets recycled[3], because of a lack of proper recycling facilities and sheer laziness on consumers’ end. This means that a vast majority of plastics ends up in incinerators and landfills, or even worse, discarded into water bodies, resulting in global plastic pollution and human health crises. 

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Single-use plastics are the biggest cause for concern when it comes to plastic pollution, but did you know that most of them are thermoplastics that can easily be melted and reused again when recycled properly?

Before you lose all hope in humanity, it’s not too late to undo some of the damage that plastic waste has caused. More big corporations are now recognising the impact of their operations on the planet, and are starting to make a change for the better. Let’s take a look at some companies that are taking major steps in each of the three big Rs (that is, reduce, reuse, and recycle) to create actionable solutions to tackle plastic pollution.  

Reduce — Zeon Asia and Momentive Performance Materials 

Located at The Galen, Zeon is a Japanese chemical manufacturer that uses unique technology to innovate many of the world’s first premier products that are the backbone of our daily lives, including synthetic rubbers and specialty chemicals, with a goal to achieve a more sustainable earth.  

Waste is unfortunately an inevitable byproduct of most operations, but Zeon takes this challenge in its stride by successfully maintaining a record of zero emissions of industrial waste, including plastic, for the past 11 years. Since 2012, the company’s final landfill volume was around 10 tons, and Zeon aims to further reduce this number to 5 tons or less.  

Meanwhile at The Chadwick, leading American chemical company Momentive Performance Materials, provides high-performance silicones and specialty solutions for businesses across a multitude of industries, including agriculture and construction, through sustainable business practices that serve as a rule rather than an exception.   

Besides reducing the usage of unnecessary materials, Momentive takes it one step further by  enhancing vital materials so that they remain functional for longer periods of time. Of note, the SilFORT hardcoat products provide long-lasting protection for lightweight polycarbonate plastics that are indispensable in the automotive industry. Essentially, it means that such plastics now have greater longevity and require fewer maintenance in its lifespan. 

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Momentive's manufacturing site in Chennai, India now procures solvents in bulk containers instead of smaller plastic drums, significantly reducing plastic waste. Image courtesy of Momentive Performance Materials.

Reuse — Johnson Electric

The global powerhouse in electric motors and motion subsystems, Johnson Electric, headquartered in Hong Kong with an industry office in The Aries, is one of the world’s largest providers of all things related to motion like motors and gearboxes. But apart from that, the company is also known for contributing to a more sustainable mobility industry through their clever management and use of materials. 

On a mission towards sending zero solid waste to landfills, Johnson Electric is committed to reducing 4% of waste per annum through rigorous management. Currently, all used plastics from injection parts and packaging that can be recovered from the manufacturing lines are directly recirculated into production processes. Waste that cannot be reused, which only accounts for a small percentage, are then sold for recycling. 

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Johnson Electric goes beyond daily operations to inject sustainability habits into the workplace culture with environmental protection activities. Image courtesy of Johnson Electric. 

Recycle — BYK

A key to making sure plastics stay sustainably functional is the use of additives to enhance their characteristics. At The Rutherford, BYK does just that, steering the additives market with a focus on sustainability. Of the many top-quality products in its portfolio, BYK carries a range of sustainable alternatives to certain specialty chemicals, devised to help businesses meet environmental goals.   

One such product is the RECYCLOBYK—a collection of 6 recycling additives and formulated systems that increase the value of used thermoplastic materials for upcycling. The group of granulated and free-flowing additive stabilisers refine plastic recyclates so that their long-term stability and value improve significantly, and they can be reintroduced into the economy once more. Similar to the efforts of Johnson Electric, this guarantees new life for an increasing proportion of products so that they don’t end up in landfills or incinerators at the end of just one use. 

Thermoplastics, such as the ones used for battery housings, are incredibly versatile, so recycling them can satisfy their high demand in many industries. Image courtesy of BYK.

While plastics are unlikely to be fully eradicated, their devastating effects can be minimised if we just take action now. Everyone has an urgent part to play. It could be as small as eliminating plastic bags with your purchases and we’re planning to give you a leg up with this in May!   We hope that this encourages more companies and individuals to join in the efforts to ensure our planet doesn’t become completely engulfed in plastics. 




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