Witness Post: Plastics

There is an iconic line from the movie The Graduate, staring Dustin Hoffman. He is playing the character, Ben Braddock, a recent college graduate. At a cocktail party he is pulled aside by Walter Brooke who plays his parents’ friend Mr. McGuire. He pulls Ben aside and says words to the effect: “Ben, I have just one word for you. Are you listening, Ben? Plastics. There is a great future in plastics. Think about it.”

This Witness Post could move into shattered dreams of college graduates then and now, and how Diane Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, seduced Ben Braddock. Instead the story will shift to what we know in the world of science and commerce.

A student of mine at Lincoln High School, Eli Cory, made a presentation on his mother’s business for an accounting project. Her company is in the plastics recycling business and her main clients are in China. The complexity of barriers to trade in any commodity is layered by language, shipping, tariffs and fear. When the discussions of trade are clouded by abundantly sourced waste materials, things get complicated.

Since the Green Wall of trade disputes erupted, the matter of China dramatically slowing its purchase of US waste is a pressing concern for all of those in the States. US plastic recycling is dubbed as “dirty” by many international standards. We have paint on our plastic car parts, we have heavy metals in our plastics, we have colorization and contaminants in there as well. How clean are out waste products it is not an idle question.

And if China, the largest consumer of US plastics waste puts up an embargo, what will we do with our plastics?

The line of my questioning, however, was more basic: where does plastic come from in the first place? And how did we get into this mess?

In the middle of Eli’s presentation, he talked about the cubic ton value of the original virgin plastics. I was curious to hear where it came from and how these products were made.

While I knew that plastics are from coal and petroleum, I had no idea where in the process started and ended. My imagination started with the drilling for crude oil and piping it to a refinery to extract the gasoline and kerosene and diesel and petroleum jelly, which is where I stopped. I knew nothing about the creation and refining of benzine, polystyrene, and other polymers and where they came into play.

Image result for how do factories make plastic

So, I looked for websites to help on the way. There are a ton of them out there from Europe, US, and other countries. The site that I spent the most time exploring was AmericanChemistry.com. For me it was time to geek out on the chemistry, to recognize my own ignorance and to be full of the wonder of it all.