Latex and plastic, though similar, are two very different compounds. Latex is formed from a natural chemical reaction in a tree, while plastic is formed from a process using petroleum. Both plastic and latex, however, emerged as important products in the 20th century, and remain so today.
Latex is produced in the Brazilian rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis. The chemical serves as a protective coating beneath the tree bark's surface. It is a cloudy-white liquid that looks similar to cow's milk. Latex is gathered by cutting a hole or gash in the tree's bark and allowing the latex to flow out; this process takes several hours. Over the decades, a progressively more modern latex production process -- including adding preservatives, centrifugation and vulcanization -- has been developed.
Plastic is developed from petroleum products, such as oil or coal. The process includes linking together molecules of monomer raw material to create a polymer. These polymers must then go through a separate production process, such as adding chemicals to produce a desired property of the plastic, including flexibility or rigidness. Plastics are used in almost everything, from toys, to cars, to medical equipment and food packaging; plastics have played an intricate and critical role in the developing and developed world.
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In the last two decades of the 19th century, Britain created and harvested rubber plantations in Malaysia with the Hevea brasiliensis tree. In the 20th century the production process was enhanced via the use of chemical additives, particularly the use of ammonia, which helped to preserve latex.
Plastics were first made from petroleum in the 1930s, and this allowed the chemical to be manufactured more readily. World War II saw a huge boost in the production of plastics, and by the 1980s the compound was omnipresent.
Problems With Latex
Although latex and plastic became important compounds for society, problems associated with the use of these products became evident. For instance, similar to how people become allergic to compounds in nature such as peanuts, shellfish or beestings, some people can develop a latex allergy. It is believed that less than 1 percent of people are allergic to latex. These people cannot touch or use latex gloves or condoms without having an allergic reaction.
Problems With Plastic
Because of its relative ubiquity, plastic can cause serious health and environmental problems. Certain chemicals put in plastic during the production process, such as phthalates, can leach out from the plastic and into people or the environment. Phthalates have been known to cause problems with the endocrine system and countries are beginning to ban its use in children's toys. Environmental risks, due to the slow breakdown of the chemical, cause serious problems with marine and land animals. According to the LifeWithoutPlastic website, "The evidence of health risks from certain plastics is increasingly appearing in established, peer-reviewed scientific journals."