Why do we have so much plastic in the world?

What makes plastic such a useful material?
29 November 2021

Interview with 

Nicola de Blasio, Harvard University


Plastic - a polymer


Given the large amounts of emissions associated with plastics and the pollution they are causing in our oceans, it begs the question why do we have so much of it in the first place? Verner Viisainen spoke to Nicola De Blasio from Harvard University to find out more about what makes plastic such a useful material

Nicola - From a chemical point of view, plastics are made up of one or more polymers. There are long chains of carbon atoms and include the well-known names, such as polyethylene, which we use in food packaging, automotive parts, and even bank notes, or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) Which is used in plastic bottles.

Verner - Why do we have so much plastic in the world today?

Nicola - We have a lot of plastic because plastics have enabled modern life. As we know it, plastic is so ubiquitous in our daily lives that we do not give it much thought. Yet it is everywhere from clothing to chewing gums from teabags to whitening toothpaste from toys to plastic bottles. Up to 5 trillion single use plastic bags are consumed every year and 1 million plastic water bottles are sold each minute around the world. However, the lack of end-of-life consideration, and the high cost of recycling, have turned plastic into the victim of its own success and that's created a global environmental crisis.

Verner - We have plastic everywhere in our modern world, but what is it about plastic that makes it so useful?

Nicola - Because plastic is inexpensive, durable, and lightweight. They can be soft and pliable or hard and strong. They can withstand the extreme cold or heat and they can be corrosion or chemical resistant. If the physical properties of the plastic that we produce do not meet the desired requirements, they can be enhanced with an additive such as pigments, flame retardants, antioxidants, and so on.

Verner - Is it conceivable to imagine a world without plastic?

Nicola - We just need to look around us and the answer becomes pretty obvious. Today a world without plastic is really almost unimaginable. Plastic has moulded society in many ways that make our lives easier and safer, even more so during the COVID 19 pandemic. In the end the real question is 'how can we leverage the advantages of plastic without contributing to the world's environmental crisis?'


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