Plastic - The stuff that has become a nightmare.

Vanessa Koch — — 5 minutes

Like no other material, plastic revolutionized our society and our lives in the 20th century - everyday life without it is no longer imaginable. Our children play in plastic diapers with plastic toys. We drink water from plastic bottles and coffee from plastic cups. We transport our shopping in plastic bags, dress ourselves with textiles made of plastic fibres and clean our teeth, hair and skin with care products containing plastic.

Plastik, der Stoff aus dem ein Albtraum geworden ist.
Photo: by Pexels

Why? Because it is extremely cheap to produce, can be moulded into any shape, makes our fast-paced everyday life even easier and more pleasant, is a profitable business and on top of that has a high durability. The fact that it endangers our health and increasingly poisons the environment is the other, darker side.

As you have probably noticed, we are talking about plastic. But let's call a spade a spade: plastic. This makes it unmistakably clear that it is a substance that does not occur in nature. Plastics are created by a sequence of chemical reactions called polymerization from organic raw materials, mostly natural gas and petroleum.

Polymerization of plastics

By using different forms of polymerization, plastics can be produced with variable properties: soft or hard, transparent or opaque, solid or flexible. They consist of macromolecules, structural units composed of very many atoms. Long-chain, extremely stable polymers.

It is hardly surprising that nature cannot simply break down these plastics - microorganisms, which otherwise break everything down into its components and thus return it to the cycle, bite their teeth out at them. In other words: All synthetic plastics that have ever been produced are still among us.

Here are a few numbers: It is estimated that 8.3 billion tons of plastic were produced by 2015. Researchers from the University of Georgia and the University of California in Santa Barbara calculated that about 6.3 billion tons of it ended up as waste, only about 10 percent of it was reused, 12 percent incinerated and 79 percent was deposited in landfills or in nature. And plastic continues to be produced day after day. We are currently approaching the 10 billion tonne mark in rapid strides. 1

When did it all begin?

The history of plastic begins as early as the middle of the 19th century, the first plastics were still made from natural raw materials. While plastic was long considered and treated as a high quality material, in the 1950s, driven by increasing prosperity, mass consumption, lack of resources and the influential oil and natural gas industry, the production of cheap synthetic plastics began.

And that's where the problem begins.

A new age begins with plastic: the disposable society. More and more disposable products are flooding the market - this is the lifestyle of the 21st century.

Plastic is literally on everyone's lips and can now be found everywhere on our planet. When we no longer need it, it ends up in the trash. From there it takes its way. We find it in the earth, in rivers, on the highest mountains and in the most remote places, in the deepest depths of the oceans. Only to land back on our table as microplastics when we eat fish, for example. The circle is complete. A vicious circle.

Plastic ends up in the sea and breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces without ever disappearing completely.

The dilemma:

We produce ever larger quantities of plastic, mostly using it only once. Only a fraction is recycled and the plastic waste mountains around the world are growing steadily. We in Germany, like other nations, are reacting to this with waste exports. According to the industry association PlasticsEurope, production is expected to double in the next 15 years and quadruple by the year 2050.

There's no excuse for single-use.

In our eyes there is only one alternative: We have to do without plastic completely. Especially on disposable products. Waste separation in Germany does not really work and waste disposal is becoming an ever greater challenge. And even if there is progress in recycling, we must not produce more plastic and poison the environment.

Of course there are areas like medicine which cannot yet replace these versatile plastics. But we can and must change our everyday behaviour. Bio-plastics, a deceptive term that raises false hopes, will not help.

The facts and figures on the subject of plastics, how much is consumed, recycled or released into the environment in our country and worldwide, are of course constantly changing. To keep you up to date with the latest developments in this area, we have put together a few links to the most important sites:

Plastic Pollution Coalition

Bund für Umwelt- und Naturschutz Deutschland

Heinrich Böll Foundation

1 – How much plastic we have ever produced