They’re everywhere. People use them for almost any task that requires a bag. You probably even have a collection inside a random kitchen cabinet. However, do you know which processes and components make up plastic bags? Although many consumers aren’t aware, it’s essential to learn about plastic’s detrimental side effects.
What are plastic bags made of? Let’s take a look at the past and future of their production.
A Brief History of Plastic Production
It wasn’t until 1862 that humans first discovered how to make plastic. An Englishman named Alexander Parkes found that you could heat cellulose to create a flexible substance that held its shape. Previously, it had been impossible to use materials other than those produced by nature. This discovery helped people realize they could manufacture products without limitations. The first synthetic plastic appeared around 40 years later.
Plastic didn’t become completely mainstream until World War II. Because people could use it for nearly any purpose, its popularity soared. Inventors had gone through many processes to figure out which methods worked best to create an effective product. Simultaneously, it had become clearer that plastic had lead to a disposal problem across America. Unfortunately, this issue didn’t cease plastic production.
It was clear from 1941 and beyond that polyethylene could be used as a durable and accessible ingredient for plastic. In fact, it remains a key ingredient to this day despite its unfavorable origins.
How Do We Make Polyethylene?
It’s important to learn more about what makes up plastic. Some plastics come from polymers. This molecule houses units called monomers that bond together to form a basis for plastic. For plastic bags, it’s more common to use ethane. This gas becomes ethylene at steam cracker plants and turns into polyethylene when chemically altered. Because we can manipulate polymers and ethylene, they’re perfect for various plastic objects.
Polyethylene specifically comes from fossil fuels. These substances exist deep within the Earth, and it takes a long and harmful process to extract them properly. You may recognize natural gas as a well-known energy source. It’s also a key component when used for polyethylene creation. That’s because natural gas yields high ethane content — and as a result, it’s a simple way to source polyethylene for plastic products.
We can manufacture polyethylene into various types. Most plastic bags use high-density polyethylene because it’s more durable. That said, you’ll find others that contain low-density or linear low-density polyethylene. These kinds become weaker bags that we often allocate for single use. In any case, they’re almost entirely made from polyethylene unless there’s a printed-on logo.
The Various Problems With Plastic
There are many concerns connected to plastic as a whole. We source it from fossil fuels that lead to environmental devastation. Aside from plastic’s origins, it’s created extensive difficulties for wildlife specifically. Nearly 12 million metric tons enters our oceans every year. As a result, it’s become much harder for animals and plants to learn how to survive. What happens when a turtle mistakes a plastic bottle for food?
It’s no secret that our current global plastic output has led to other problems. Those who live on shorelines have to deal with litter on their beaches — and it’s not often due to their own waste. Plastic surges through our waterways like no other manmade item. In fact, it’s contributed to a garbage patch that amounts to over a million square kilometers. That’s an almost irreversible culmination.
Polyethylene doesn’t decompose, either. It takes an incredibly long time for a plastic bag to break down. Even then, this material can’t disappear completely. It may eventually turn into a microscopic substance, but it’ll never fully decompose. That proves to be extremely detrimental to ecosystems worldwide.
Can We Prevent Furthur Damage?
It’s up to companies and businesses to stop plastic production if we want to eradicate these issues. It’s become popular for consumers to turn to more sustainable alternatives. That’s a noble effort, but it’s not entirely effective. Unless we eliminate plastic from all supply chains, it’ll be impossible to move toward better solutions. Sadly, it doesn’t seem as though many influential corporations care about other options.
That said, we shouldn’t stop our efforts. It makes a statement when people buy less plastic bottles and bring their own bags. If individuals and organizations continue to put pressure on large entities to stop plastic production, we’ll likely see some improvements. That’s cause to continue our fight against plastic pollution around the world.
There’s Hope for Future Plastic Creation
Even though today’s plastic bags are made of harmful polyethylene, it’s possible to choose more sustainable routes. Many companies have opted for recycled or 3D-printed versions that work to eliminate waste. These steps can lead us to a world without plastic — or at least better alternatives.