By 2050 there will be more plastic than fish. This is precisely the scenario for our seas that a 2016 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation foresaw, sounding the alarm about the effects of atypical pollution branded as secondary to larger environmental problems. Since then, the problem of plastic pollution has exploded in all its painful severity.
Since its invention, plastic has been an indispensable companion as well as the architect of our development thanks to its exceptional characteristics. First of all – as far as its name suggests – the ability to acquire and maintain any form. But not only. Because plastic is cheap, light and can be painted; water repellent, corrosion resistant and insulating.
Perfect and, above all, democratic material that forever changed our lives. For the better.
Take a look around and then at yourself: plastic made space travel possible and revolutionized medicine. It has made cars and planes lighter, reducing consumption and pollution, and cling film effectively preserves food and reduces food waste. From clothing to bottles, cosmetics, pens, smartphones and packaging, we live in a plastic world made up of many ephemeral, if not disposable, items.
ETERNAL MATERIAL FOR DISPOSABLES
And yet, ironically, the duration of their use is inversely proportional to the potentially infinite time they persist in the environment. Plastic is made up of polymers, that is, long chains of identical molecules. For decades, the industry has been striving for even greater durability by creating ever stronger materials.
From here originate the mountains of waste that today flood the planet. In fact, plastic is not biodegradable. At best, under the influence of solar ultraviolet rays, it slowly decomposes into small fragments scattered in our environment. Most of it ends up in the oceans, where it accumulates. Fragments of this dust pollution that cannot be eliminated can be taken as food and ingested by fish, mollusks and crustaceans, accumulating in the tissues. And from here they end up on our plates with completely unknown effects.
THE BIRTH OF ALL PLASTICS
The history of plastics dates back to the 19th century, when between 1861 and 1862 the Englishman Alexander Parkes isolated the first semi-synthetic plastic, patenting it modestly as parkesine. This compound, made by adding camphor to pyroxylin, became the progenitor of all plastics and found inconspicuous use in the manufacture of handles and drawers, as well as more flexible items such as cuffs and shirt collars.
A few years later, American businessman John Wesley Hyatt patented celluloid, a cellulose-based compound found in all plants. In addition to saving the lives of a few elephants, celluloid transformed billiards from an aristocratic pastime to a game that could also be played in bars frequented by workers: it was designed to replace the rare and expensive ivory used in the production of billiard balls. and all sorts of knick-knacks, it was an instant hit even with dentists who used it to make dental casts.
Unfortunately, celluloid is not suitable for high temperature forming because it is highly flammable. The problem was overcome at the turn of the century, when cellulose diacetate was developed, fire resistant enough to reinforce and waterproof the wings and fuselage of early aircraft, and for motion picture production.
MATERIAL FOR MASS
In addition to saving the lives of a few elephants, celluloid transformed billiards from an aristocratic pastime to a game that could also be played in bars frequented by workers.
In 1910, the Belgian Leo Lakeland obtained the first thermoses resin of synthetic origin. Bakelite was a resounding success, so much so that for several years it became the most common and used plastic material. The early 20th century was the golden age of plastics inventions: just two years later, the German chemist Fritz Klatte theorized the production process for polyvinyl chloride (PVC), accidentally synthesized by his compatriot Eugen Bultmann in 1872. however find commercial applications. In 1913 it was the turn of cellophane, the first flexible, transparent and waterproof plastic invented by the Swiss Jacques Brandenberger, to be widely used as packaging.
REMOVE THE PATH OF OIL
The 1930s coincided with the heyday of the plastics industry: oil undermined many of the plant compounds used up to that time, becoming a raw material. In addition, significant improvements have been made to the supply chain, adapting it to mass production. In 1935, Wallace Carothers synthesized nylon, the first truly synthetic textile fiber with endless uses, from women’s socks to parachutes. Based on the intuition of Carothers, who had meanwhile died, in 1941 the British Rex Winfield and James Tennant Dixon patented polyethylene terephthalate, whose acronym we find printed on all or almost all plastic bottles on the market today. However, lightweight, impact resistant and transparent, PET was not widely available until 1973.
LIFE IS MODERNIZED
From offices to homes, plastic has simplified many everyday activities, painting homes, revolutionizing centuries-old habits, and helping to shape modern lifestyles. It was during these years that the rise of polyethylene was recorded, the high melting point of which made it possible to use hitherto unthinkable, as well as the appearance of isotactic polypropylene on the scene. Discovered by Nobel laureate Giulio Natta, the so-called Mauplein has revolutionized the production of thermoplastic materials due to its mechanical resistance and cost-effective processing: sinks and siphons, tubs and buckets, as well as crockery and kitchen utensils.
The following decades were characterized by feverish technological research, which led to the gradual introduction of plastic in unthinkable areas through the development of so-called technopolymers. Among other things, supermaterials have been created, such as Kevlar, whose greater mechanical tensile strength for the same mass is 5 times higher than that of steel; polymethylpentene, resistant to sterilization and having perfect transparency, is easily adapted in laboratory instruments; polyimide resins, so resistant to high temperatures that they are used to make components of engines or microwave ovens; polycarbonate _ used to make astronaut helmets and contact lenses. After forging ever stronger and more durable materials for more than a century, today the industry is moving away from the opposite assumptions, or almost the opposite: the goal of current research is resistant and stable materials, yes, but only until they are used, after which they are easily degradable. The secret is in the balance of the polymer. Until recently, the goal was to obtain stable polymers to ensure their durability, and discard unstable ones. Today, the latter are back in fashion. In the presence of a certain trigger, such as strong light, acid, or a certain temperature, the chains of molecules that make up these experimental polymers decompress, starting an irreversible degradation process.