The Promise of Plastics

The history of plastics is believed to have begun around 1860. A U.S. Pool and billiard company called Phelan and Collander offered a $10,000 prize to the person who could develop a substitute for ivory. The winner was John Wesley Hyatt, who called his new material Cellulose. It was marketed as Celluloid commercially and was used for a large range of products including dental plates and mens shirt collars.
After Hyatt a large range of polymers were developed, but the first completely synthesized product was created around the 1900's and was called Bakelite. The brittle, lightweight product named for its inventor Leo Hendrick Baekeland, was the first to be referred to as plastic.
Bakelite™ Jewelry 

Since then plastics have evolved to become more durable and long lasting. Plastic originally created affordable products. Affordable and beautiful jewelry and elegant tube radios were now attainable by all working classes. Plastic was a material used to efficiently produce a great quantity of items at a lower cost to the manufacturer than natural alternatives. The production of plastic materials boomed during the industrial revolution.
At the time, little thought was given to the reality of a non biodegradable substance, as it was still fairly new. The positive aspects of the material seemed to outweigh the negative. As the world population has increased along the demand for inexpensive, single use products, we have created a startling amount of waste. We have disrespected the use of a product that was originally intended to increase the quality of life. The problem lies not with plastic itself but with our casual and uninformed use of it. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean there exists a patch of floating trash the size of the state of Texas.

Although this is incredibly disturbing, there is still hope for our future. The most important thing is to teach people about the plastic they consume daily so that they may make informed decisions about its purchase and disposal. Currently, many large corporations are making the environmentally responsible decision to switch to biodegradable plastics. These plastics have starch powder mixed in as a plastic filler which allows the material to break down easier when exposed to sunlight, water, bacteria, and enzymes. The plastic doesn't completely break down, but this is a great start. Even more promising, some companies have even genetically engineered bacteria that synthesize an entirely biodegradable plastic. At this time, the new fully biodegradable plastic is pretty expensive, but hopefully this will change as time goes on. With the spreading of knowledge, practice of mindful habits, and the innovations of chemistry, there is still hope for us to turn this mess around.  

—Heather Winkelman

What would Europe do?

It is always interesting and also valuable to learn what other countries are doing about popular issues. I have always thought that European Union is pretty tough on environmental laws and I think they also have a good track record when it comes to environmental issues. This year they introduced a new bill on reducing use of plastic bags. It was voted on and approved by 28 EU member states that by 2025, the use of flimsy, single use plastic bags would be reduced by 80%. The states are given a choice on how to approach it. For example, they can add a tax to flimsy bags that are dangerous for the environment. You can read more about it here and here.
From personal experience, I know that one of the EU countries, called Estonia, has been charging customers at the grocery stores for plastic bags for a long time. However, this only happens at the grocery stores and not anywhere else. It made me wonder if that would work here in the US or would it be considered restriction of freedom. Either way, I think that if all 28 states in the EU are making an effort to change something then it could have a really good outcome, because everybody is working together to achieve a goal that helps everyone. 

"It isn’t Waste, It’s Treasure.”

Akinori Ito, a Japanese inventor has created a portable machine which converts plastic back into oil. The idea came to him when he began to realize the places he used to play as a child have disappeared from trash pollution, because there is very little space for garbage. There have been other initiatives in Japan for plastic to oil conversion, but the plastics have to be treated, and large scale conversion creates a lot of CO2 emissions. Ito decided to take a different approach. His machine is small, and the user can put their used plastic directly into the machine, it doesn’t have to be shredded, separated, or treated. The plastic goes inside of a drum, then a lid is fastened to the drum. The plastic is heated and gasses that the plastic gives off travel through a tube and is then cooled in a tank of water. As the gas cools it becomes oil, and can be extracted off the top of the water. The oil then can be further processed into gasoline, diesel, or kerosene. According to Ito, the oil can be separated and used in a car, a motorbike, a generator, boiler, or a stove. His machine converts 1 kg of plastic into 1 liter of oil.

Akinori Ito created a company called “Blest Co.” and decided to use his new invention to teach the younger generation. His machine is small enough that he can take it on a plane. He and his team travels to Africa, The Philippines, and The Marshal Islands to teach kids about plastic conversion to oil. They gather garbage from the ground or trashcans and show the children how they can convert plastic into oil. Ito’s company also started the “School Oil Field Caravan”. It looks similar to a food truck, but it is full of conversion equipment. This caravan travels to different schools and Universities in Japan, and other parts of Asia, such as India and Nepal. They encourage the students to gather up their plastic garbage and bring it to the caravan and then do demonstrations on how to convert plastic to oil. Ito says, “People begin to see that this is not garbage, the bottle cap, the lunch container is oil. People don’t know that garbage is oil, that’s why they are throwing it away. If they know it becomes oil, they collect it. They see it isn’t waste, it’s treasure.” Ito believes that the world’s CO2 emissions could be decreased by 80% if the whole world converted their trash back into oil, instead of relying on oil that is transported from far away countries. 

A Canadian company called, Enerkem, is also taking initiative to create oil from garbage on a large scale.  Enerkem was founded by Dr. Esteban Chornet, a former engineer at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Chornet believes that turning waste into fuel has a number of advantages including, potentially being an answer to two pressing problems—diminishing the world's dependence on fossil fuels and an alternative to burying trash in landfills. The 468 million metric tons of trash produced in North America each year could provide 47 billion liters of ethanol—or roughly the same amount as produced from corn, which presently supplies 10 percent of U.S. gasoline demand. Other waste to fuel companies, typically burn their gas directly to produce electricity, this can result in the emissions of toxic chemicals. Enerkem however, turns waste into gas, and then cools it in a similar process Akinori Ito created; their oil is then converted into ethanol. On the business side of things, Chornet believes that producing fuel from garbage is a promising opportunity. Businesses have the potential to make a lot of money, a plant that turns 300 metric tons of raw material per day will produce 36 million liters of ethanol per year. Essentially Enerkem is turning landfills into oil fields. They plan to open more plants at more landfills soon. 

These types of initiatives could be even more profitable if more countries diversified their fuel sources. Brazil gives it’s consumers a choice at the pump between ethanol, methanol, or gasoline, this keeps their fuel prices competitive and lower. As well, they sell a lot more cars that are flex fuel cars which could run off of gasoline, or an ethanol or methanol fuel. 

If the United States diversified our fuel sources, we would see lower gas prices, and smaller landfills, and we wouldn’t have to ship our waste to other countries. This would decrease CO2 emissions greatly, as well, the United States could decrease it’s dependence on other countries for oil; such as the middle eastern countries. The United States also has an abundance of natural gas, so much so that the over-abundance is often flared because it’s not being sold. If the United States diversified their fuel sources, this over-abundance would not be a problem at all. I think creating fuel from plastic and waste, has the potential to solve a variety of pressing problems facing the world today. From keeping plastic out of the oceans, to decreasing the size of landfills, to the rising fuel prices, to the depletion of fossil fuel sources. Waste fuel could solve the oil crises, and our pollution crises. 

A little history lesson

While most of us think of plastic as a relatively new invention, plastic has been around since the mid 1800’s. The invention of plastics came from the need to develop large scale methods of manufacturing materials.
The first plastic was observed in the 1850’s by Alexander Parkes. He found that a residue left after evaporation of photo-development materials was “a hard, horny, elastic and waterproof substance”. Although this substance was not a successful commercial or industrial product, it was considered the first true plastic.
In 1869 an inventor named John Hyatt invented type of plastic which could be used as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls. This was the first commercially viable way of producing a solid stable plastic. The plastic was used to make billiard balls, false teeth and piano keys. This is the first time that humanity could generate such materials that didn’t come from animals or plants. This first use of plastic actually had a positive impact on the environment by eliminating the need to kill elephants and tortoises to make hard sturdy objects. It also allowed more people who had limited access to natural resources to obtain these products because of the increased availability.
Leo Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic plastic in 1907. It contained no molecules found in nature. This plastic was invented as a mechanically synthesizable synthetic electrical insulator. Prior to this, the insulator of choice was shellac - a substance produced by a female lac bug. This new plastic electrical insulator helped expand the U.S. electric grid when it was first being implemented.
From 1939 to 1945, the need for plastic exploded because of World War II. The war effort required a lot of plastic to be used in place of harder to come by materials like rubber. Plastic was used for parachutes, military vehicles, radar insulation, ropes, body armor, helmet liners, airplane windows and many more.
After World War II, the use of plastic continued to rise. Tupperware, plastic bags, packaging, automobiles, and seemingly limitless other products require the use of plastic. The need for easily manufactured, hard, flexible, light materials will always exist. History shows that plastic is hugely beneficial and can even help the environment, however because of the explosion in plastic use, it’s important to limit use when possible and always properly dispose of plastic products.

Everton, Clive (1986). The History of Billiards and Snooker (rev. ver. of The Story of Billiards and Snooker, 1979 ed.). Haywards Heath, UKPartridge Pr. p. 11.


Plastic that ends up in the ocean has been shown to kill animals like whales, birds, and fish. A simple google image search will show you millions of disturbing photos of how dirty the ocean is and how it can hurt animals. The plastic gets into the ocean by littering and mismanagement of waste. Despite many campaigns to raise awareness of this issue tonnes of plastic get into the ocean every year. Most of the plastic breaks down into tiny pieces that float near the top of the sea. These little pieces were discovered to grow a wide variety of microorganism, called the plastisphere, that are not found in the surrounding waters and some of these organism are able to breakdown plastic (Zettler, 2013).
Abstract Image

As a microbiologist hearing this gives me hope that we have not completely destroyed oceans. One of the concerns though is that the bacteria are pathogenic. When I heard about bacteria that can break down oil or a fungus that can eat plastic my next thought was, "Why don't we use this in our landfills (Russell, 2011)?" It appears nature and I were on the same wave length. Lets just hope that we continue to innovate and get away from polluting and that the ocean can bounce back.





Zettler ER, Mincer TJ, Amaral-zettler LA. Life in the "plastisphere": microbial communities on plastic marine debris. Environ Sci Technol. 2013;47(13):7137-46.

Russell JR, Huang J, Anand P, et al. Biodegradation of polyester polyurethane by endophytic fungi. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2011;77(17):6076-84.

How to avoid plastic

This project has changed my perspective on plastic dramatically. Though I never littered and always recycled I was not really trying to reduce. I found a website with a huge list of 100 ways to reduce plastic use. I am not ready to make such a drastic lifestyle change but there are many suggestions here that are no brainers.

Plastic waste is a global issue

Plastic is a general term used to describe many different materials that have very different chemical compositions. Even though the use of plastics cuts down on carbon emissions and space in landfills if it is not properly disposed of the affects are detrimental to a vast array of species all around the world. A paper published in Science magazine in February 2015 estimated the amount of garbage getting into the ocean from mismanaged waste disposal around the world. Here is the list of the estimated top twenty countries responsible for plastic pollution  in the ocean due to mismanaged waste:
Coastal pop.
Waste gen.
% plastic
% mismanaged
% of total
5Sri LankaLMI14.65.17841.595.00.24–0.64
11South AfricaUMI12.92.012560.632.00.09–0.25
19North KoreaLI17.30.69900.301.00.05–0.12
20United StatesHIC112.92.581320.280.90.04–0.11

We share the ocean. Don't ruin it for everyone.


Jambeck JR, Geyer R, Wilcox C, et al. Marine pollution. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science. 2015;347(6223):768-71.