The Plastic Cycle and It’s Detriments

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Most of us are extremely familiar with plastic products. We use an abundance of plastics each day, whether we recognize them or not. From phone cases, to shampoo bottles, to school supplies, to food containers; our lives have become consumed by the impact of plastics as a means of getting through everyday life. Yet, do many of us even know what plastics are, where they come from, or the long-term impact they are creating? We blindly use the most popular products and take advantage of why plastics were created in the first place. Follow along to read our breakdown of plastics, their cycle, and the detriment that they continuously cause. By educating ourselves on our daily habits, we might uncover terrifying facts and the eye opening realities of plastic use.


By definition, the word “plastic” describes synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that use polymers to be easily shaped. Most of the plastics we use today come from fossil fuel-based chemicals. Plastics were originally developed as a man made alternative to natural polymers, like cellulose. Many synthetic polymers are commonly made with carbon atoms in fossil fuels such as methane gas petroleum. 

The chemists behind plastic seeked to create a lightweight, strong, and flexible material that could be used widely in consumer products. Since the invention, success, and expansion of plastics, humans have taken advantage of the easily accessible material and have failed to focus on the extreme detriment that this synthetic will cause to the environment. Through each and every step of the plastic cycle –from production to disposal– greenhouse gases are emitted.


During the first step of the plastic cycle methane gas is extracted, typically through mining, drilling, or ‘fracking’. The process of fracking has warranted the concern of many, as the impacts of the process may include toxic aerosol emissions, harmful water contamination, resource depletion, and a potential increase in oil spills and natural disasters. After the fossil fuel materials have been extracted, the refineries will take care of cracking: chemically breaking down ethane and propane into ethylene and propylene. 


Next, the chemical processing of producing resins for plastics is typically carried out in one of 7 ways, determining what type of plastic product is created. The plastic type is indicated on the bottom of many products, yet many people are not educated on what each of these symbols mean.

Once the resins are cooled, they are made into “nurdles” or plastic pellets that are then sent to manufacturers to be turned into plastic products of their choice that we know and use. 


Since 1950, over 9 billion tons of plastic have been manufactured. A majority of these materials have been used for single use plastic items, the most detrimental to our environment. 

We understand that recycling is marketed as the solution to plastic waste. In reality, recycling is possibly the best solution that we have to dispose of used plastics, but it cannot save us from the detriment that has been caused by the plastics that have already been created. Plastics cannot be recycled an infinite amount of times. Each time that we recycle a plastic product and create plastics to then be reused, the quality of the plastic lessens more and more. The process of recycling is time and energy intensive. Though recycling is better than sending these materials to a landfill where they will fail to deteriorate, it will be a constant cycle of manufacturing new plastics from old materials and the amount of plastics on the earth will only increase. 


Plastics were originally created as a solution to create products that could not be made from natural materials. Still today, there are many necessary parts that do not have a plastic-free alternative. In the medical field, certain materials, such as pace-makers are made from plastics and have helped save numerous lives. These products are not the plastics we are necessarily worried about when we discuss the need to remove plastics from our lives. 

Single use plastics make up most of the plastic population and are typically used on product packaging. By using these plastics we are adding to the already excessive amount of plastics found in recycling, landfills, or even in our parks and beaches. By letting plastics be used for necessary items such as medical usage, we should aim to cut single-use and unnecessary plastics from our lives to slow down the horrible effects that these materials have on our planet. 

A future that produces as many plastic products that we do now is a world we should fear. The numbers will not diminish unless we stop the cycle. 



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