Choking on plastic, how did we get here?

Published & written for Eco Warrior Princess here.

The secret is well and truly out that plastic that was once a ‘magical material’, has turned into an environmental disaster. The synthetic and man-made material has been around for decades, with multiple applications from clothing to cutlery. It’s difficult to imagine a world that hasn’t involved plastic, trickling its way into our lifestyles and creating a disposable and wasteful culture. In modern day, it’s polluting the ocean, suffocating coastlines and working its way into human bodies. Scientific experts around the world have expressed serious concern for the future of marine life and human health from the ingestion of plastic, with no simple solution in sight.

With the destruction that plastic has caused, it’s easy to forget it’s positive properties, but there is a reason it’s so widely used worldwide. Plastic is cheap to produce, easily manufactured and durable. The word is derived from the term ‘plastikos’ which literally means “capable of being shaped or molded” in Greek. Plastic is incredibly versatile, hence why it’s so commonly used and has numerous important applications in modern healthcare, for example, artificial limbs and glasses. The issue isn’t the material itself but the way it’s been mass-produced and applied into a disposable commodity. So how did we get here?

peter-clarkson-722891-unsplash

 History

Science can sometimes have unintended consequences, and plastic is the perfect example of this. Plastic’s origin is from oil (a fossil fuel known as petroleum), which has been used for thousands of years as a natural resource. The United States was one of the first countries to trade it as a fuel commodity in the 19th century. Petroleum is a naturally occurring material deep in the ground consisting of carbon molecules. Scientists and innovators experimented with petroleum to achieve different variations of the material, ultimately, and accidentally, producing plastic.

Plastic is made up of multiple long chains bonded together from oil, generally consisting of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur and then turned into millions of pellets. Its chemical structure is actually similar to natural materials such as wood or rubber. Plastics made from oil such as Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), nylon, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polystyrene (PP) have since blown into mainstream uses and produced a whole new market.

“Plastics freed us from the confines of the natural world, from the material constraints and limited supplies that had long bounded human activity… The arrival of these malleable and versatile materials gave producers the ability to create a treasure trove of new products while expanding opportunities for people of modest means to become consumers.” Scientific American, ‘A Brief History of Plastic’s Conquest of the World‘ 2011

Issues 

The exact reasons that plastics are so useful are the exact reason they are so dangerous – they don’t break down easily. It can take a plastic bottle up to 1,000 years to decompose, which means that every piece of plastic that’s been produced is still around to this day. This is the reason that the ocean is predicted to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

Plastics are also made with artificial chemicals, with possibly harmful consequences on the human body. Considering plastics are seeping into the soil from landfill and ending up in the food chain and drinking water, it’s definitely time to start worrying. According to an article published by the BBC, 100,000 animals are also killed by plastic each year in the ocean. The disposable culture that humanity has produced with plastic, is literally suffocating the planet.

The future  

Plastic is predicted to be increasing in production in the next 25 years, especially in clothing to keep up with the demands of fast fashion. For change to occur, which it desperately has to, multiple actions have to occur. Firstly, the government needs to take responsibility and invest in innovation and infrastructure that can support plastic recycling and alternative materials. One example is Sweden, where nearly 100% of household waste is recycled! The country uses waste as an energy source, contributing to a stable economy.

“Because the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far from any country’s coastline, no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up. Charles Moore, the man who discovered the vortex, says cleaning up the garbage patch would “bankrupt any country” that tried it.” – National Geographic article ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch‘, 2018.

The next change required is consumer behavior, which requires education from the government, changing the current disposable culture we live in. The plastic bag ban in some states in Australia is a good start but needs to move faster. Biomaterials are confusing and simply prolonging a wider issue of consumer behavior.

Lastly, businesses need to get involved, step up and do more to reduce plastic consumption and disposable behavior. For example, clothing brands such as Salt Gypsy are using recycled plastic to produce surf wear in small batches. This is a short-term solution, however, with fashion progress and innovation, hopefully, clothing brands can invest in more natural and eco-friendly materials which are kind to the skin and the ocean.

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