Plastic is a staple of modern day life. Its durability, versatility and relative cheapness makes it a near perfect material. 311 million tons of plastic was produced globally in 2014.
Plastic is made up of a polymer backbone, which is a long chain of repeating molecules (monomers). Monomers are extracted from fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and petroleum. Up to 20% of the world’s fossil fuel goes to plastic production. The organization of monomers creates the basic structure of plastic. Different molecules can be added to this backbone to change the properties of the plastic. For example polyvinylchloride (PVC) adds chlorine molecules to the backbone. The organization of polymers also influences the characteristics of plastic. If polymers are crystalized and packed very closely, the plastic produced is hazy, stiff and strong. If the polymers are loosely organized, the product is clear and flexible.
During production either of the raw plastic, or plastic products, extra additives may be added to alter the characteristics of the material. These include antioxidants (to protect from weathering), colorants, antimicrobials, and flame-retardants. There are two ways of processing plastic once the desired base molecules have been produced. Thermoset plastics create hard, durable plastic, most seen in boat hulls, and helicopter propellers. Thermoplastics are softer and more flexible. 92% of plastics are thermoplastics, including packaging, bottles, and electrical insulation.
Though the many qualities of plastic make them useful in every day life, it makes them very difficult to dispose of. Plastic is made to be resistant to environmental factors, and never breaks down in the natural environment. Plastics with different qualities must be separated before recycling (indicated by the number inside the recycling arrows), and most can only be down-cycled into a less useful form of plastic, eventually becoming unrecyclable. Only about 14% of plastic is recycled worldwide. Only about 2% actually reenters the economy. This represents a loss of almost $120 billion of material literally thrown away or lost to the environment.