Plastic is a versatile and potentially indestructible material, which makes it ideal for a number of commercial and household uses. Indeed, plastic has become a substitute for many items which used to be made from other substances, such as plastic bottles for condiments such a ketchup. In many cases, this is extremely useful and convenient. However, plastic has a many environmental downsides, beginning with the production of plastic and extending to its disposal.
Plastic is actually a derivative of petroleum, natural gas or similar substances. They are transformed into a substance known as polymer resin, which is then shaped and formed into whatever object is desired. However, as a petroleum by-product, plastic contributes to oil dependency, at a time when it is generally recognised that oil will not be available indefinitely. Also, the production method of plastic represents a major source of air and water pollution.
Although many types of plastics could potentially be recycled, very little plastic actually ever enters the recycling production process. The most commonly recycled type of plastic is polythene terephthalate (PET), which is used for soft drink bottles. Approximately 15 to 27 per cent of PET bottles are recycled annually. The other type of plastic which is somewhat commonly recycled is high-density polythene (HDPE), which is used for shampoo bottles, milk jugs and two thirds of what are called rigid plastic containers. Approximately 10 per cent of HDPE plastic is recycled annually.
The vast majority of plastic, especially plastic bags, winds up in landfills. Besides the fact that available landfill space is becoming increasingly scarce, plastic poses special problems for landfills. Most plastic is not biodegradable, which means it does not break down to its simple component parts. This means it remains present in landfills indefinitely. Another problem is that birds frequently become tangled in plastic bags and plastic rings for soft drink cans, either choking or breaking their wings.
Some industry officials have promoted the incineration of plastic as a means of disposal. A similar process known as pyrolysis bakes plastics into a hydrocarbon soup which can be reused in oil and chemical refineries. However, both incineration and pyrolysis are more more expensive than recycling, and each process also poses severe air pollution problems.
A large proportion of plastic winds up in the ocean, where it is often torn into small particles which are eaten by marine animals. This causes a possible serious threat to the food chain, as the marine animals are eaten by other animals which eventually wind up in human diets. Plastic particles sometimes are so numerous that they appear to be ocean foam if viewed from a distance.