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Living in a plastic world

Though it is a relatively new product, plastic is all around us, sometimes for good, but more often as toxic waste. But its uses are many and varied.
It insulates electric wiring and makes it safe. Most light switches and plugs are made of plastic and it is also used to make pipes that transport our drinking water and sewage.
Baby bottles, toothpaste, tooth brushes and shampoo bottles are also made from plastics. In our hospitals, plastic is used to carry human blood and deliver antibiotics intravenously.
Toilet seats are made from plastic and toilet paper is wrapped in plastic. In our wardrobes you will find a number of clothing items that are made from plastic.
Billions of water bottles and containers for other liquids are now manufactured from plastic. In the supermarket, many items, such as meat and fish, are displayed in plastic containers and covered with plastic wrapping.
At the fruit and vegetable counter most items on display are packed in plastic bags. In the kitchen, food is covered with cling film so that it will not become contaminated. Most sauce-bottles are made of plastic.
There would be chaos at the checkout desk if a customer decided to take all the items chosen for purchase that are packed in plastic out of their wrapping and leave the debris behind.
In some parts of the world, a tax is placed on plastic bags, but in many others they are given out free, as both the shop owners and the public understand that the plastic bag makes shopping easy.
But the cost of so much plastic on the land, in the rivers and in the oceans has become horrendous.
The biro I write a letter with is made of plastic. It too will be thrown out once the ink is used up. A large part of the computer in front of me is made of plastic.
If I take a long-distance flight, the food containers and cutlery which I use just once are made of plastic.
I receive two newspapers each week, The Universe and The New Scientist, both publications are wrapped in a plastic envelope, which when removed is discarded. In the past the envelope was made of paper.
The problem with plastic is that it stays around for an extremely long time. This is why it is estimated that there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic floating around on the surface of the world’s oceans.
Almost 279 billion tonnes of plastic is created each year. More than 40 per cent of plastic, including shopping bags and all kinds of containers are used just once and then discarded.
Plastic is strewn right across the world, even in the Arctic. Many feel that the problems with plastic are almost as serious as the problem of climate change.
But plastic was looked on favourably when it was first created towards the first half of the 19th century. 
It is a polymer, which is made up of a long chain of molecules. A natural polymer, cellulose, makes up the cell wall in plants.
Some synthetic polymers are made of substances similar to cellulose. Most plastic, however, is made of carbon atoms which come from petroleum.
It is the length of the chain and the pattern in which they are arrayed which make the polymers strong and lightweight.
The first synthetic polymer was created by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869. It was inspired by an offering of US$10,000 made by a New York business to anyone who could invent a substitute for ivory.
At that point in the 19th century, billiards was becoming a popular indoor sport in cities and towns of Europe and in the United States of America (US). The only way you could get the extra ivory needed for the expansion of the sport was by killing elephants.
By treating cellulose, which is derived from cotton fibre, with camphor, Hyatt discovered plastic.
This new product could be shaped in a variety of ways and made to imitate ivory. The creation of plastic was initially seen as a way of protecting wild elephants and other creatures.
The first synthetic plastic, which did not contain any natural molecules, was invented by Leo Baekeland in 1907.
A major impetus in the growth of the plastic industry in the US was World War II. During those few years the industry grew by 300 per cent.

 • Father Sean McDonagh