Plastic is everywhere. From toothbrushes to yogurt cups, diapers to disposable razors and more; there is hardly a product out there today that isn’t made of plastic or wrapped in plastic. So what exactly is plastic and how is it made?

The History

The word plastic is derived from the ancient Greek word plastikos, meaning “moldable”. The earliest uses of plastic date back 3,500 years ago. The Olmecs of Mexico used the sap from gum trees to create latex balls used in mesoamerican sports. In the 19th and 20th centuries, synthetic plastics were born from inventors like Alexander Parkes who invented Celluloid and Leo Baekeland who invented Bakelite. 

The Process

Plastics today come from fossil fuels. First, crude oil and natural gases are extracted from the ground and sent to refineries to convert into many products including Ethane from crude oil and Propane from natural gas. Crude oil and natural gas provide a cheap alternative to plant-based plastics like the ones used by the Olmecs of Mexico.

Then, Ethane and Propane are broken down into smaller molecules where Ethane produces Ethylene and Propane produces Propylene. A catalyst is added linking Ethylene and Propylene molecules that form resins in a process known as Polymerization. Here, Ethylene becomes Polyethylene and Propylene becomes Polypropylene. These resins allow the plastic to be shaped and molded under heat and pressure. 

Next, these resins are cooled down to become tiny plastic pellets called Nurdles. Nurdles are then transported to manufacturers who then mold them into different types of plastic products. Most plastic products are marked with a Mobius Symbol with a number in the middle. This is also known as the Resin Identification Code. This code signifies the plastic product type based on the chemicals used to make it. 

The Impact

Although plastic production didn’t take off until the 1950s, today global plastic production has reached 9.2 billion tons of plastic. Most of the plastic products made today end up in the trash. Single-use plastics constitute about 40% of all plastic waste. Plastic products can also end up in our environment as litter. Scientists predict that by the year 2050 plastic waste will outnumber fish in our oceans. Plastic doesn’t decompose but rather breaks up into tiny pieces called microplastics. These microplastics are getting into our waterways and bioaccumulating in our ecosystems, damaging natural habitats, threatening wildlife, and polluting communities.

The Solution

Simple steps lead to positive change! Join Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful this Plastic Free July by reducing your reliance on plastic. You can start by bringing your own cup to Artown to refuse single-use plastic water bottles. Reduce plastic products you could not refuse by shopping bulk to avoid excess plastic found in packaging. Don’t forget to take your own reusable shopping bag to the grocery store. Finally, make sure you are recycling right. Only recycle plastic tubs, jars, and bottles and remember not to bag your recyclables on collection day. You can take your plastic bags back to a grocery store near you. Visit www.ktmb.org/recycle for more information on proper disposal of unwanted items. 



National Geographic. Plastics 101. Producer/Narrator by Angeli Gabriel, video.nationalgeographic.com/video/101-videos/00000163-6503-de85-a16b-679316cc0000


Funded in part by the Washoe County Health District