Image by Nicole Gava
You see plastic around you every day. You’re probably reading this on a (partly) plastic laptop or phone. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if something is made of plastic or some other material, because plastic comes in many shapes, looks and products.
So how did we become so dependant on plastic? Where did plastic come from, why was it created and has it always been a problem? We’re diving into the world of plastic and exploring some of the history, uses and problems. Read on to find out more!
A short history of man-made plastic
The word itself comes from the Greek word plastikos, which means “capable of being shaped or moulded”. It seems like a very well-chosen word. Like the Greek word, plastic doesn’t refer to a specific type of material. Plastic is the name for all synthetic materials that can be formed into any shape when liquid and retain it when solid.
There are many kinds of plastic, and some of them are completely natural and have been around forever. Way back, at around 1600 BC, Mesoamericans were already using rubber, a natural plastic. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the first man-made plastic was created. Scientists at the time were looking for a way to replace precious materials like ivory.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a Belgian scientist created the first synthetic plastic and after World War I many more kinds of synthetic plastics were invented. Some of these are still used to this day. Mass production started in the 1940s and 50s.
Most plastics are made of materials like oil and gas and can be divided into two categories, thermoplastics and thermoset plastics. Thermoplastics can be melted back into a liquid and then reshaped, while thermoset plastics are permanently solid after creation. Thermoset plastics are therefore very hard to recycle.
The plastic problem
At the start, plastic seemed great. It was cheaper to produce and could replace natural products like ivory and wood. These scientists could probably never have imagined what would happen to their invention in the decades to come.
One example of this is the late Swiss engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin, the inventor of the plastic bag. According to his son, Thulin had invented the plastic bag as an alternative for paper and cotton bags. Due to large areas of forest being cleared for paper bags and growing cotton was very water and land-intensive, his intent for the plastic bag was for it to be reused many times.
It seems that at the start of plastic production, inventors intentions were to actually help the planet. Unfortunately, the modern world has slowly developed into a consumerist society, where convenience and trends are most important. Nowadays, people want the newest technology, they want to have the most fashionable clothes and prefer single-use products they can use on the go.
The amount of plastic we are currently producing is estimated to be close to 400 million tons a year and around 50% of that is single-use plastic. Plastic production uses up around 10% of our total oil supply, contributing to the depletion of these natural resources. Oil and gas are both nonrenewable resources, so once they’re gone, they’re really gone. We should be looking for alternatives before we reach this point of no return.
The popularity of plastic
One of the reasons why plastic became so popular is because it’s very durable, which has turned out to be a big issue. It can take hundreds to thousands of years for plastic products to degrade and the plastic doesn’t actually disappear, but just turns into microplastics.
So what about recycling? Unfortunately only 9% of all plastic has been recycled since the 1950s. That’s 91% that has ended up on landfills, in rivers and in the ocean.
Even if it was more, recycling is not the answer. A lot of plastic actually can’t be recycled, and even the eligible plastic will eventually be discarded as well. The quality of recycled plastic degrades with every recycle round, so it’s just a temporary solution. At some point, all the plastic we create will end up in the rubbish. So not only is it depleting earth’s resources, it’s also polluting the earth.
The majority of the world's plastic eventually ends up in the ocean. There are currently 5 big garbage patches floating in the ocean. You’ve probably heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but there’s another one in the Pacific Ocean, two in the Atlantic Ocean and one in the Indian Ocean. Currents gather the plastic and other debris in one place and create huge isles of floating rubbish.
We’re hearing more and more about the big impact this is having on marine life. Recent studies have found that out of all the animals examined, all of the sea turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals and 40% of seabirds had plastic in or around their bodies. Fish are eating microplastics, thinking it's food. At the same time, floating plastic has been found to release toxic chemicals into the ocean that is contaminating fish and other marine animals.
Marine animals are confusing plastic for food or get tangled in floating debris and it’s killing over 1 million animals every year. That’s not all though, it is also affecting us humans. The ocean is a big source of food for a large percentage of the world's population and plastic is ending up in our own food chain through the seafood we eat. We don’t know the long term health effects of plastic on humans, so we could be facing an even bigger crisis than we are aware of.
What can we do?
So now we live in a world where plastic is everywhere and we seemingly can’t live without it anymore. That doesn’t mean that all hope is lost! Sure, we might not be able to cut plastic out of our lives completely 100%, but we can definitely do something. It is estimated that plastic production could increase by up to 40% in the next decade, but if we all reduce our single-use plastic use, we can give off a powerful message to the bigger corporations. As the consumer, we have that power!
We’re not saying you need to cut out all single-use plastic straight away, that’s just not realistic for most people. We just want you to be aware and start you thinking. It's all about starting small, but being consistent with those changes. Like Zero Waste Chef Anne-Marie Bonneau said so well:
“We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
Stay tuned for more information and tips on what you could change in your life to help our planet and our oceans. If we all work on this together, we can make a change in the world!