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Natural vs. Synthetic: The Differences Aren’t So Great

Terms like ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’ are bandied about without much thought as to what they really mean. It is easily observed in our collective obsession with natural products. We have become a society willing to attach a negative perception to anything synthetic. Meanwhile, we have unrealistic expectations of those things classified as natural.

It turns out that the differences between natural and synthetic are not so great after all. For starters, a natural substance is one that occurs in nature without any interference from humanity. And even when we grow natural products on farms, for example, human interference is kept at a minimum.

A synthetic product or material is one that is created through synthesis. In other words, it is man-made. Plastic rope is a synthetic product. But what about rope made from hemp? It is still man-made. What makes it natural as opposed to being synthetic?

Production Via Chemical Synthesis

The sticking point between plastic and hemp rope seems to boil down to how the two products are produced. Making hemp rope is fairly straightforward. You harvest the hemp, process it, and then use the resulting fibers to make your rope. Making a plastic rope is not so easy.

Plastic is produced through chemical synthesis. Therein lies the difference. Chemical synthesis creates polymer chains that can then be converted into threads. Likewise, the threads can be wound together to create a plastic rope.

Hemp grows on its own. Plastic does not. Plastic can only be synthesized through a chemical process. With that said, stop and think about this: the derivation of raw materials is the only real difference between natural and synthetic. It is not that big a difference.

Synthesizing What Nature Provides

Seraphim Plastics is a Tennessee company that recycles industrial plastics from five states. Plastic materials they collect are shredded and ground into much smaller pieces. The resulting material is purchased by plastic manufacturers for use in their own processes.

The plastics Seraphim recycles were created through chemical synthesis. But for that synthesis to take place, manufacturers have to start with their own raw materials. Where do those materials come from? Nature.

Plastics manufacturing requires organic polymers. These are polymers that contain carbon-hydrogen bonds. Guess what? Both carbon and hydrogen are natural elements. They exist in nature. Humanity does not manufacture them. At any rate, the organic polymers are chemically processed to create plastics.

Most of our plastics are made from fossil fuels. Before you gasp, fossil fuels are also natural. They are oil and gas. What is oil? It is the product of natural decomposition. Plant and animal life decomposes when it dies. After so long in the ground, that decomposition produces oil.

Synthetic to a Point

The main idea here is that synthetic materials are only synthetic to a point. They are only synthetic in the sense that chemical synthesis is utilized to create them. But that synthesis would not be possible without raw materials. The raw materials would not exist if not for nature.

The fact is that humanity is incapable of making something from nothing. Everything we make starts with raw materials provided by nature. Plastics start with living organisms that die and decompose. The petroleum we use to make plastics is a completely natural substance.

In the end, there is no need for us to be put off by synthetic materials or products. They aren’t as evil as so many people make them out to be. Everything synthetic started as something natural. Humanity just found a way to take what nature provides and improve on it. That is really what chemical synthesis is all about.

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