Let's look at plastic (Part 1): What is it.
E emma smith

Let's look at plastic (Part 1): What is it.

Jul 2, 2023 · plastic

Hi There-

Are you ready to nerd out? 

Fantastic- you’ve come to the right place. 

Because this is a little something called chemistry and it is absolutely fascinating- even if you don’t enjoy nerding out, please allow yourself to embrace this post- it is important for every single one of us to learn about, as we all share a planet. And, are all made of chemistry.

The post is about you, in a way. Alright.

We are surrounded by plastic- it is even in us. But many of us don’t realize the severity of its existence- we think it’s ‘bad’ and have terms like ‘environment’ and ‘sea turtles’ and ‘recycling’ in our heads but… do we really get what it is?

If you’re anything like me, up until a year or so ago, you don’t. And that’s ok- because this post is here to help. And please remember- just because you haven’t thought something is important does not mean it isn’t important- I know it’s overwhelming, but we all need to make an effort to learn and make an effort to change. Our lives, and the lives of those who are far more vulnerable than us, truly depend upon it. 

We can make a difference not only for ourselves and our loved ones, but the loved ones of others, who cannot defend themselves. This is what Zimt is about, and I’m happy that you’re here so we can do this together. It is no small task.

So- let’s delve in- the big, bad 7-letter-4-letter-word: plastic.

Plastic: What is it? Really. 

Approximately ⅓ of all plastic produced is used to form packaging. 

Plastic is, like many things,  a type of polymer - like many things. Most substances, and all man made ones (synthetic), are polymers. These include things like paint, nylon clothing and Teflon… most things humans make out of petroleum.

  • Polymer: a larger type of molecule made by multiple monomers binding together
  • Monomer: a type of small molecule that binds with other small molecules to form a polymers
  • Molecule: two or more atoms that have chemically combined to form a single species (they can be the same element, though)
    • Molecule of a Compound: 2+ types of elements
    • Molecule of an Element: only 1 type of element 
  • Element: a substance with only one type of atom. It cannot be broken down by chemical means- they are the base ‘ingredients’ upon which all complex substances are formed (... molecules and beyond)
  • Atom: the defining structure of an element- each of the 118 known elements has a unique atomic structure (remember the periodic table? The Periodic Table of Elements outlines all the known elements)

 Chemical Bonds


Plastic is always a polymer, but a polymer is not always plastic! All plastics are polymers, but not all polymers are plastics. Some familiar nonplastic polymers include starches (polymers of sugars), proteins (polymers of amino acids) and DNA (polymers of nucleotides). Basically, almost all physical substances are polymers- except for ionic compounds (like salt), metals, and elements. Natural polymers would include substances such as pectin, cellulose, and proteins.

The purpose of explaining the chemical structure of plastics is to help you be informed as to what they are- this helps to inform you about even more important components: the source materials used to make plastics, and the disposal techniques for these differing types of plastics. 

What makes plastic different from other polymers, like rubber and starch? Well, it is a synthetic polymer. It is not found in nature. 

It is not found in nature. 

It is not recognized by nature.

But we put it in nature.

And, it does not do well in nature- particularly, if that plastic is made of petroleum. So. Where does it go? And how does it get into our hands, homes, and on our store shelves? How does something with such an oily slick end up housing our pasta, potato chips and electronics? 

Before we get into answering those questions in subsequent posts, and before I sign off- take a look around you. How much plastic- petroleum based plastic- do you see? 



Unless you’ve made some really wise life decisions, you see lots of it. (... I see lots of it- hmmm… time to rethink some life decisions…)

Each of the above questions applies to what is around you, too. If we demand its use- we must demand its responsible life stages (production, consumption, disposal). And like so many important things, they just won’t get done without your help. 

Now, we’re at the heavy processing stage- the stage where things start to take shape, quite literally, to become objects we recognize and likely even use on a daily basis. From sludge to phone cases, how does plastic get made? 

Well, you’ll have to stay tuned for part 2 of this series- there is a lot of ground to cover. Endless reading material? 

Emma of Zimt

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