Plastics 101 – State of the Planet

From bottles to bags, computers to clothing, Mount Everest to the Mariana Trench, plastic is found everywhere today’s world. Though you likely use plastic every day, how much do you really know about this “Material of a Thousand Uses”? As part of this year’s Earth Day, which calls for a 60% reduction in the production of all plastics by 2040, test your own neuroplasticity in the quiz below.

Plastics are composed of very large molecules called:

  • Polymers
  • Glycolipids
  • Plasticines
  • Nanotubes
Simple illustration of building blocks combining into a larger block.
A simplified illustration of how monomers could join to form polymers. (Zappys Technology Solutions / Flickr)

A polymer, from the Greek words for “many parts,” is a large molecule composed of many repeating subunits, known as monomers, chemically bonded together. Polymers are characterized by their high molecular weight and can exhibit a wide range of physical and chemical properties.

Synthetic polymers, or plastics, are derived from:

  • Natural rubbers
  • Silica
  • Petroleum oil
  • Animal fats

While natural polymers – such as silk, wool, DNA, cellulose and proteins – occur in nature and are often water-based, synthetic polymers are human-made and derived from petroleum oil. Common synthetic polymers include nylon, polyethylene, polyester and Teflon.

The first fully synthetic plastic – meaning it contained no molecules found in nature – was called:

  • Adamantium
  • Bakelite
  • Bolonium
  • Styrofoam

Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, in 1907. Baekeland had been searching for a substitute for shellac, a natural electrical insulator, to meet the needs of the rapidly electrifying United States. Bakelite became a great commercial success, and was used in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings, and a wide range of consumer products.

According to current estimates, how much plastic waste is produced globally each year?

  • 100 million metric tons
  • 200 million metric tons
  • 300 million metric tons
  • 400 million metric tons

According to the UN Environment Programme, about 400 million metric tons (441 U.S. short tons) of plastic waste are produced annually – the equivalent of approximately 1,208 Empire State Buildings by weight.

Of all the plastic ever produced, approximately how much has been recycled?

  • 9 percent
  • 21 percent
  • 50 percent
  • 86 percent

Which stage in the lifecycle of single-use plastics does not contribute to climate change?

  • Manufacturing
  • Disposal
  • Recycling
  • None of the above

From fossil fuel extraction to landfilling, plastics produce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change at every stage of their lifecycle. Even plastic recycling comes with an environmental footprint, though it generally results in a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions compared to the production of virgin plastic.

Plastic materials produced from renewable biological substances rather than petroleum are called:

  • Neoplastics
  • Bioplastics
  • Enviroplastics
  • Hydroplastics
Photo of a knife, fork and spoon. All are white bioplastic.
Biodegradeable cutlery made from cellulose acetate. (F. Kesselring, FKuR Willich / Wikimedia Commons)

Bioplastics are produced from biological substances such vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, wood pulp, or recycled food waste. Bioplastics can also be biodegradable, meaning they can be decomposed by the action of living organisms, usually microbes. Though bioplastics can offer many benefits, they aren’t a silver bullet when it comes to the world’s plastic pollution problem.

Which of the following statements is true of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:

  • It’s a solid island of trash
  • It can be seen from space
  • It’s mostly made up of floating plastic bottles
  • It’s a vast oceanic area that stretches between California and Japan

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world. The entire Great Pacific Garbage Patch is bounded by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (a large system of swirling ocean currents) which covers an area of about 7.7 million square miles. The Patch is almost entirely made up of microplastics – tiny plastic pieces less than five millimeters in size – which pose significant threats to marine life.

A research study earlier this year found that water in plastic bottles contained many tiny plastic particles smaller than one micrometer. These miniscule plastic particles are called:

  • Microplastics
  • Milliplastics
  • Nanoplastics
  • Zetaplastics

Nanoplastics are tiny plastic particles smaller than one micrometer. (Though also small, microplastics are defined as fragments less than five millimeters.) The study found that on average, a liter of bottled water contained some 240,000 detectable plastic fragments—10 to 100 times greater than previous estimates, which were based mainly on larger particle sizes. Though nanoplastics are so small they can easily pass into the human body, scientists are only just beginning to study their potential impacts on human health.

Scientists have recently made progress in developing enzymes that can break down PET plastic – commonly used for plastic bottles and textiles – in commercial settings and the environment. What microorganisms are these enzymes derived from?

  • Bacteria
  • Algae
  • Fungi
  • Protozoa

The French company Carbios is already using a process called “enzymatic recycling” to recycle PET plastic according to a circular economy principle. But challenges related to efficiency, safety, and technical and economic viability will need to be overcome before “plastic-eating” bacteria become a practical reality.

More State of the Planet quizzes »


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