Synthetic polymers are an integral part of the modern world. They make your life easier and more convenient in hundreds of different ways -- but that doesn't necessarily mean synthetic polymers are free from disadvantages. The raw materials used to produce them are not limitless, and the way you dispose of them can also lead to environmental problems.
Synthetic polymers are an incredibly versatile group of compounds -- so versatile, in fact, you can find them in all sorts of unexpected places. The methyl 2-cyanopropenoate in your superglue polymerizes to make a tough, solid film; RTV silicone hardens when dried to make gaskets for use in cars. The nylon in stockings and ropes, the polyesters in clothes, the polyethylene in shopping bags, the PVC in plumbing and the rubber in your car tires are just a few more examples of synthetic polymers in your everyday life.
Society uses synthetic polymers because many of them have highly desirable properties: strength, flexibility, resistivity, chemical inertness and so forth. Take, for example, acrylonitrile/butadiene/styrene (ABS) copolymer -- a synthetic polymer -- which is strong and hard and yet flexible as well. ABS is found in objects as diverse as car bumpers and camera cases. Or take polystyrene, which is easily molded to make items like plastic forks. Polystyrene foam, better known as Styrofoam, is a fantastic thermal insulator popular as beverage containers used in restaurants.
Currently synthetic polymers are manufactured from hydrocarbons derived from crude oil, especially substances like ethylene and 1,3-butadiene. The supply of oil, however, is far from limitless. According to the New York Times, in March 2011, economists at the major international bank HSBC warned that less than 50 years' supply of oil is left, given current rates of consumption (assuming major undiscovered reserves do not exist). Consuming crude oil to make synthetic polymers takes another bite out of the already limited amount remaining, and once these dwindling supplies run out, the world will need new sources of industrial starting materials to make these synthetic polymers.
Many synthetic polymers' most desirable feature is their chemical inertness -- their resistance to various kinds of chemical degradation. This same property, however, also means they last a long time once they are thrown away. According to a 2007 article in Slate, scientists estimate that a single plastic bag could take as much as 500 years to break down. If items made of these sturdy synthetic polymers are thrown away as litter, they can also find their way into the local environment as well.
- "New York Times"; Less than 50 Years of Oil Left, HSBC Warns; John Collins Rudolf; March 30, 2011
- "Slate"; Will My Plastic Bag Still Be Here in 2507?; Juliet Lapidos; June 27, 2007
- University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: Scientific Principles, Polymers
- "Organic Chemistry, Structure and Function"; Peter Vollhardt, et al.; 2011
About the Author
Based in San Diego, John Brennan has been writing about science and the environment since 2006. His articles have appeared in "Plenty," "San Diego Reader," "Santa Barbara Independent" and "East Bay Monthly." Brennan holds a Bachelor of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.