The term plastics came to be used only around 1925, but what we call plastic today was invented either in 1839, 1862 or 1909, depending on how you to choose to define it. In 1839, German chemist Eduard Simon discovered polystyrene when he isolated it from natural resin. However, it was in 1922 that another organic chemist, Hermann Staudinger, realised what Simon had discovered was a long chain polymer. Staudinger would go on to win a Noble Prize for his work on polymers while polystyrene would find its use in synthetic tyres and Styrofoam (yes, the same stuff you get your coffee in).
Many chemists consider English inventor Alexander Parkes to have invented the first real plastic compound, which he named Parkesine. He was experimenting on rubber, and he combined various components to come up with the new compound. However, Parkesine was not very stable, and it did not find too many applications, and by all accounts, it did not prove to be a commercial success, though it was soon followed by other materials that took their inspiration from it.
The first all-synthetic plastic is generally credited to Leo H. Baekeland, a Belgian-American inventor, who invented Bakelite for electrical insulation. Unlike the variety of plastics that preceded it, Bakelite had no natural molecules, and it is deemed as the first, true modern plastic.
Plastic started to gain popularity for all sorts of applications post World War II because it has two great qualities. One, as the name suggests, it can be moulded into any shape (the word is apparently derived from Latin plasticus or Greek plastikos, both of which mean 'able to be moulded'). It can be moulded to produce bags, combs, toothbrushes, electric wire insulation, straws and cups, buckets, pipes, water bottles and almost anything. It can also be used for building roads.
The other great property is that it is pretty much indestructible. More indestructible than any superhero from Marvel or DC universe. Any plastic that was ever made will stay on for hundreds of years unless it is recycled. Over a few centuries, it may degrade, breaking up into component parts, but even then, the synthetic molecules will keep floating around. Essentially, no one has figured out a way of destroying plastic except for recycling or incinerating it, which is not much of a solution, given that it will create a huge emission problem.
The world produces roughly 300 million tonnes of plastic every year, but only about 10 per cent gets recycled. So far, it is estimated that we have produced about nine billion tonnes or more of plastic.
Anything that does not get recycled gets dumped in landfills or in the rivers and oceans, where it stays forever.
In 1997, Captain Charles Moore, who was commanding the research vehicle Aguita, discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch - a huge dump of plastic floating in the ocean. Recent research suggests that the patch contains at least 79,000 tonnes of plastic in an area of 1.6 million sq. km, which is more than twice the size of France. And there was no way to clean it up.
Marine scientists have also estimated that every year, about 1,00,000 marine animals die after ingesting plastic that has found its way to the seas and the oceans (there is no estimate as to how many land animals choke and die on plastic although the number could be bigger). Every year, a number of dead whales wash up on shore because of the plastic they have swallowed.
For India, which is hosting the World Environment Day, plastic is probably a worse problem than it is in the developed world. It is cheap and convenient, and we still have not got over our love affair with single-use plastics (they are used once and thrown away like straws and Styrofoam cups and plastic bags used by vegetable vendors). Developed countries have generally reduced their use of single-use plastics to deal with the growing plastic waste. The other big problem for India is that because of its sheer population, plastic use is only supposed to go up, not down. Currently, it is estimated that India generates about 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day.
So, how does one deal with the problem of plastic waste? So far, the focus has been on two areas. One is degradation, which focusses on breaking down plastic waste into monomers or smaller polymers. And there are multiple methods of doing it, from heat degradation to biodegradation (the latter depends on microorganisms to chomp on plastic waste).
Biodegradation is the better option as the plastic waste is broken down by algae, fungi or bacteria and converted into biogas. In most other methods of degradation, the plastic is only broken down into smaller pieces - maybe as small as a few millimetres - but it does not make the problem go away. It just makes it look as if it has gone away although it remains as a pollutant in the air, soil and water.
Although biodegradation is a great solution, all types of plastics are not amenable to this method. More importantly, there is the scale issue. It is a slow process (although new research is focussing on things that can speed it up), and no one has managed to economically build huge plants where all types of plastics can be treated through biodegradation.
The second focus area is creating newer, easily degradable plastics, including those which can degrade in sunlight or will take a much shorter period. Again, this does not make the essential problem go away. The plastic will degrade into small, perhaps invisible pieces, but it will stay on as a pollutant.
What is the solution then? Environmentalists and scientists recommend a combination of efforts. First, a big effort on reducing single-use plastics so that so much of plastic trash is not generated. Then, a lot of efforts for collecting the existing plastic waste and dramatically increasing its recycling. Finally, speeding up the process by biodegradation research and creating alternatives such as bioplastic, which is not synthetic and which degrades into natural compounds if treated in special compost facilities.
The main plastic problem, as scientists are beginning to understand, is that it is one of the few materials where we have been successful in creating new types and uses, but not as successful in figuring out how to destroy them.