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Impact of Polymers and Plastics

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Impact of polymers and plastics


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a large area of waste that has collected in the central North Pacific Ocean. It is estimated to cover at least \(\text{700 000}\) \(\text{km$^{2}$}\).

Impact of Polymers and Plastics

Plastics and the environment

Although plastics have had a huge impact globally, there is also an environmental price that has to be paid for their use. The following are just some of the ways in which plastics can cause damage to the environment.

  1. Waste disposal

    Plastics are not easily broken down by micro-organisms and therefore most are not easily biodegradeable. This leads to waste disposal problems.

  2. Air pollution

    When plastics burn, they can produce toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen chloride (particularly from PVC and other plastics that contain chlorine or nitrogen).

  3. Recycling

    It is difficult to recycle plastics because each type of plastic has different properties and so different recycling methods may be needed for each plastic. Some plastics can be remelted and re-used, while others can be ground up and used as a filler. One of the problems with recycling plastics is that they have to be sorted according to plastic type. A list of some of the different types and their identification codes are given in the table below. Alternatively, plastics should be re-used. In many countries, including South Africa, shoppers must now pay for plastic bags. This encourages people to collect and re-use the bags they already have.


Plastic type




Impact of Polymers and Plastics



very clear

high strength

barrier to gas

barrier to moisture

water bottles

peanut butter jars

mouthwash bottles

can recycle

most places

Impact of Polymers and Plastics



very stiff

high strength

barrier to moisture

allows gas through

yoghurt tubs

detergent bottles

cereal box liners

can recycle

most places

Impact of Polymers and Plastics



can be blended easily

high strength

very toughness

detergent bottles

medical equipment


very rarely


Impact of Polymers and Plastics



very flexible

high strength

barrier to moisture


squeeze bottles

bread bags

not often


Impact of Polymers and Plastics


high strength

resistance to heat

barrier to moisture

syrup bottles

plastic caps


fairly easy

to recycle

Impact of Polymers and Plastics


many uses

very clear

is easily formed

egg cartons

disposable cups

take-away boxes

fairly easy

to recycle

Impact of Polymers and Plastics


dependent on

combination of


large containers


computer cases

often not


Table: The plastic identification code (PIC), type, properties and uses of various commonly used plastics.

Optional Case Study: Plastic pollution in South Africa

Read the following extract, taken from Planet Ark (September 2003), and then answer the questions that follow.

‘South Africa launches a programme this week to exterminate its national flower – the millions of used plastic bags that litter the landscape.

Beginning on Friday, plastic shopping bags used in the country must be both thicker and more recyclable, a move officials hope will stop people from simply tossing them away. ‘Government has targeted plastic bags because they are the most visible kind of waste,’ said Phindile Makwakwa, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. ‘But this is mostly about changing people’s mindsets about the environment.’

South Africa is awash in plastic pollution. Plastic bags are such a common eyesore that they are dubbed roadside daisies and referred to as the national flower. Bill Naude of the Plastics Federation of South Africa said the country used about eight billion plastic bags annually, a figure which could drop by 50 percent if the new law works.’

It is difficult sometimes to imagine exactly how much waste is produced in our country every year. Where does all of this go to? You are going to do some simple calculations to try to estimate the volume of plastic packets that is produced in South Africa every year.

  1. Take a plastic shopping packet and fold it until it forms a tightly compressed cube.

    1. Measure the approximate length, breadth and depth of your compressed plastic bag.

    2. Calculate the approximate volume that is occupied by the packet.

    3. Now calculate the approximate volume of your classroom by measuring its length, breadth and height.

    4. Calculate the number of compressed plastic packets that would fit into a classroom of this volume.

    5. If South Africa produces an average of 8 billion plastic bags each year, how many classrooms would be filled if all of these bags were thrown away and not re-used?

  2. What has South Africa done to try to reduce the number of plastic bags that are produced?

  3. Do you think this has helped the situation?

  4. What can you do to reduce the amount of plastic that you throw away?

  5. Take a survey of your classmates, family and friends on the quantities and types of solid waste they generate. What methods could they use to reduce that waste?

  6. It has now been over ten years since shops started charging for plastic bags. Research the effects this law has had on South African plastic waste.

Optional Case Study: Biodegradable plastics

Read the following extract, taken from Nova: Science in the news (July 2006), and then answer the questions that follow.

Our whole world seems to be wrapped in plastic. Almost every product we buy, most of the food we eat and many of the liquids we drink come encased in plastic. Plastic packaging provides excellent protection for the product, it is cheap to manufacture and seems to last forever. Lasting forever, however, is proving to be a major environmental problem. Another problem is that traditional plastics are manufactured from non-renewable resources – oil, coal and natural gas. In an effort to overcome these problems, researchers and engineers have been trying to develop biodegradable plastics that are made from renewable resources, such as plants.

The term biodegradable means that a substance can be broken down into simpler substances by the activities of living organisms, and therefore is unlikely to remain in the environment. The reason most plastics are not biodegradable is because their long polymer molecules are too large and too tightly bonded together to be broken apart and used by decomposer organisms. However, plastics based on natural plant polymers that come from wheat or corn starch have molecules that can be more easily broken down by microbes.

Starch is a natural polymer. It is a white, granular carbohydrate produced by plants during photosynthesis and it serves as the plant’s energy store. Many plants contain large amounts of starch. Starch can be processed directly into a bioplastic but, because it is soluble in water, articles made from starch will swell and deform when exposed to moisture, and this limits its use. This problem can be overcome by changing starch into a different polymer. First, starch is harvested from corn, wheat or potatoes, then micro-organisms transform it into lactic acid, a monomer. Finally, the lactic acid is chemically treated to cause the molecules of lactic acid to link up into long chains or polymers, which bond together to form a plastic called polylactide (PLA).

PLA can be used for products such as plant pots and disposable nappies. It has been commercially available in some countries since 1990, and certain blends have proved successful in medical implants, sutures and drug delivery systems because they are able to dissolve away over time. However, because PLA is much more expensive than normal plastics, it has not become as popular as one would have hoped.


  1. In your own words, explain what is meant by a biodegradable plastic.

  2. Using your knowledge of chemical bonding, explain why some polymers are biodegradable and others are not.

  3. Explain why lactic acid is a more useful monomer than starch, when making a biodegradable plastic.

  4. If you were a consumer (shopper), would you choose to buy a biodegradable plastic rather than another? Explain your answer.

  5. What do you think could be done to make biodegradable plastics more popular with consumers?

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