A polymer is commonly defined as a combination of different compounds that in them have some structures that repeat themselves. The entire process that in the end leads to the development of a polymer is known as polymerization. In essence, it is used to refer to how the various parts are combined to form a polymer. Traditionally, more focus was given on the covalent bonds when linking the compounds of a polymer. This has, however, changed in the recent past, and non-covalent bonds have also been given some level of significance.
Polymer is a term in reference to exceptionally large classes of the constituent compounds that can either be natural or synthetic. Polymeric materials have so many diverse properties that make up them, hence a category of unavoidable materials because of the range of roles they play in the day to day activities of a human life. An instance of this argument is how far the plastic materials are used by people in making their activities successful. There are also the biopolymers which are crucial and have considerable influence on the biological structure and also the functions carried out by these structures.
The different properties that polymers bear are further divided into broad classes as regards their scale of definition and also the basis of the physique they bear. A polymer is made up of many monomers hence identification of these constituent monomers forms the mere basic property of any polymer. Consequently, the standard arrangement of the single chained monomers of a polymer that is its microstructure is also a key property. Importance of the properties of a polymer is seen when they are used as the determinant factors of other properties. This is meant to show the behavioral patterns of a polymer as a persistent macroscopic material. There are the chemical properties of a polymer which specifically serve to offer the description of interaction of the different chains at the nano-scale and under the influence of some physical forces. In a different scale called the macro-scale, these same properties only go as far as offering a description focusing on the interaction of the bulk polymers and some other chemicals and also a set of solvents.
In discussing the impacts that polymers have on the environment is crucial to, first, understand the different types of polymers. As mentioned earlier, polymers can be categorized into two broad categories which are the natural polymers and the synthetic polymers. On this basis, I can be clearly outlined that natural polymers are so friendly to the environment and cause no harm to it. On another note, the synthetic polymers have so many impacts on the environment which in most cases turn out as negative effects. Synthetic polymers describe the category that is developed and created by the human beings and whose properties are influenced by the developers. Since they are manufactured using so many different chemicals, these polymers, under some conditions, react profusely releasing reactants that are not friendly to the environment and also to the developers who are the human race (Albertsson & Huang, 1995).
Examples of synthetic polymers are all forms of plastics, products made of rubber, adhesives and their constituent components and many more. All these are materials that cannot naturally decay into the environment. However, when heaped together at the disposal stage, they tend to release so many chemicals that cause much harm to the environment and its inhabitants. Such chemicals affect the plants that are grown and will be eventually be consumed by either animals or people hence poisoning the consumers of these products. It is worth noting that the naturally occurring polymers are biodegradable, the reason behind them having no negative impacts on the environment. Examples of such are the cellulose polymer and also the proteins found in the amino acids. This said non-biodegradability stands out as a key problem of the synthetic polymers to the environment.
Degradation of polymers covers two aspects. There is the commonly known biodegradation and also there is the chemical degradation of polymers. Biodegradation explains or rather denotes the natural and fast rate at which polymers are expected to decay. Most synthetic polymers do not meet this standard and hence are considered non-decaying materials. On the other hand, chemical degradation explains a slow and unusually long process through which synthetic polymers can eventually decay. For chemical degradation to be realized, the chemical components of a polymer need to break down by reacting to some forces. These small bits of the polymer’s chemicals are then consumed by the microbes which help in completing the degradation process. This is a extremely slow process that at times does not occur hence the synthetic polymers are largely considered non-degradable (Nicholson, 2006).
Degradation of polymers is also influenced negatively by some natural forces. For instance, in the case of very high temperatures and direct sunlight plastics lose their ability to break down. O some extent, this is considered a positive property of polymers that make them durable hence their ability to be recycled or reused. This property becomes negative to the environment later on in the life cycle of plastics. At this phase, they are disposed and lie in the environment for ages without decaying. It is the intermolecular properties of polymers that hinders them from decomposition or even corrosion hence they will always remain non-degradable materials (Albertsson & Huang, 1995).
The development of polymers entirely lies on oil. Oil is a hugely beneficial and preciously regarded and expensively extracted natural resource that cannot be renewed. By the very fact that polymers like plastics that eventually cause harm to the environment are made using such a precious resource is in itself a consequence to the environment. This is so because t to the environment.
Because of the recommendable length of the molecules that form up polymers, they enjoy some benefits that come with their flexible and elastic properties. Such rare properties make polymers highly admirable materials and hence equipments. This is based on the fact that plastics have constantly been cheap but durable and can be used in so many ways. Despite their durability characteristic, polymers are to some extent regarded s non-renewable given the conditions under which they are used and their final disposal methods (Nicholson, 2006).
The negative effects of polymers on the environment start right from the time they are being manufactured. This results to issues of incidental environmental pollution. In the manufacturing industry, so many chemicals are used to enhance a successful manufacture of strong and durable polymers. Most of these chemicals are so much harmful to the ozone layer as they are crucial causative agents of the depletion of the compounds that make up the ozone layer. A good example in support of this claim is the extensive use of chlorofluorocarbons in the manufacture of polythene. In the manufacture of plastics and more specifically the bottles used in packaging water, bisphenol A is a common component that aids the manufacture. This chemical has harsh health effect to the environment and also later to users of the products made from it.
Away from the chemical effects that polymers cause to the environment, there are also the physical effects. This is in regard to the animals that relate and exist in the same environment with these harmful polymers. Apart from releasing chemicals that affect the plants consumed by the animals, plastics have a direct effect on the animals. Research indicates that so many animals suffer digestion complications after instances of having swallowed some bits of plastics. This leads to chronic complications to the digestive system because of the toxic chemicals contained in these polymers. At times, the victim animals fail to survive because they cannot eat and operate in a normal way.
The questionable durability and reuse of polymers also poses a formidable challenge to their general interaction with the environment. In comparison to other materials like metals, polymers like plastics stand out as less durable. As a result of the high frequency of plastic use ad their short life span, it is a common scenario to note heaps of plastics all over in the environment. Other polymers like polythene bags are also seen all over, and both cannot be easily retrieved for recycling given the conditions under which they are disposed. Polymers also have extremely low melting point that hinders their use in areas with high temperatures or heat. They are also highly flammable objects that could lead to hazards like fire breakups if not handled carefully (Azapagic, Emsley & Hamerton, 2003).
According to research, it is highly evident that the renewable property of polymers has not been utilized to a great extent. This means there is a constant need for more oil to manufacture polymers hence continued effects on the environment from which oil is extracted. There is also the option of utilizing polymers in production of energy. However, this needs highly specialized devices to save the environment from the effects of the fumes that result from burning polymers. So far, the positive effects of polymers to the environment are so minimal that they are hardly noticed. This could be the reason behind the proposals by the environmental organizations to ban the manufacture and use of polymers to save the environment (Scott, 1999).
Albertsson, A., & Huang, S. J. (1995). Degradable polymers, recycling, and plastics waste management. New York: M. Dekker.
Azapagic, A., Emsley, A., & Hamerton, I. (2003). Polymers the environment and sustainable development. West Sussex, England: J. Wiley.
Nicholson, J. W. (2006). The chemistry of polymers (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry.
Packham, D. E, 2012. A crisis in the environment? The impact of polymers and adhesives. In: POLYCHAR 20, World Forum on Advanced Materials, 2012-03-26 – 2012-03-30, Dubrovnik.
Scott, G. (1999). Polymers and the environment. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry.