A plastic planet.
How humankind’s miracle material and great solution has become one of the world’s greatest problems.
We’re victims of our own success. The world we inhabit, the creatures we share it with and the intricately-connected web of life that we form a part of, are all victims of that same success. To most people in 2019 it would be hard to imagine what life was like in a time before plastics. Synthetic plastic is everywhere, in almost all the objects that surround us on a daily basis. Our clothes are made from plastics, our money is plastic, even our food contains plastic (more on that to come).
Before plastics people relied on stone, glass, porcelain, wood, metals, textiles and the body parts of animals. We worked with materials that were fragile, brittle, heavy, time-consuming to produce and difficult to manipulate. In 1869 the first synthetic polymer, celluloid, was invented by American John Wesley Hyatt. It was created by treating cellulose, derived from cotton fibre, with camphor. Ironically, it was invented as a replacement for ivory, as the growing popularity of billiards was causing the demand for ivory billiard balls to outstrip the supply of elephant tusks. And so the first plastic may have saved the world’s largest land mammals from extinction. Unsurprisingly, the first advertisements for celluloid praised it as something that could save the natural world from the scale of human consumption.
What the first plastic also did was to present a material that wasn’t economically tied to the abundance or scarcity of natural resources. In other words it was the first step in providing a material that would become available to everyone, at an affordable cost.
Eight million tons. It’s the kind of number that’s so big you can’t even picture it. Here’s a little help: it’s enough plastic trash to account for five grocery bags per foot of the world’s coastlines.
In 1907 the first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was invented, meaning it contained no naturally-occurring molecules, and the human world received the power of a material that existed, as far as we could see, completely independently of the natural world. As production processes improved and evolved, we gained access to a material that can be created in an almost limitless variety of shapes, colors, densities, thicknesses and elasticities. More importantly, it can be cost-effectively produced on an immense scale, making it cheaply accessible to the masses. It’s truly the material of the people.
More than a century since its invention, we have become completely dependent on the convenience of plastic, and because it’s so cheap we use it in incredible quantities, without a moment’s thought. A massive amount of it, we use only once. In fact some of it we might not even use at all, we just accept it as part of the way we live, and toss it out as soon as we’re sure we don’t need it (think of plastic forks in the packet of takeout you eat at home). Once in the trash, it may as well not exist as far as we’re concerned. But it does exist, and will continue to do so long after you and I are gone.
People have produced around 9 billion tons of plastic to date. A maximum of around 30 percent of plastic is recycled, depending on where you live, with the US's rate sitting closer to just nine percent. The rest is sitting in landfills and, where it’s close enough to reach them, oceans around the world. A decade ago eight million tons of plastic trash was already making its way into our oceans every year. Eight million tons. It’s the kind of number that’s so big you can’t even picture it. Here’s a little help: it’s enough plastic trash to account for five grocery bags per foot of the world’s coastlines. That’s five packets, every foot, of every piece of coastline on every continent.
The direct effect to marine life is devastating. More and more often we hear reports of large marine mammals falling victim to plastic pollution, including a recent case of a whale in the Philippines which starved to death despite its stomach being stuffed to the brim. It had more than 88 pounds of plastic in its gut. UNESCO estimates that 100,000 marine mammals die from plastic pollution a year, while scientists estimate that 90% of all the world’s seabirds have ingested at least some amount of plastic. As tragic as these facts are, there’s another, more insidious threat to ourselves to consider.
The fact that synthetic plastics contain no naturally-occuring molecules means that there’s nothing that can feed on them. Instead they break down via weakening by the sun and wave action, leading to the proliferation of microplastics. More than 90% of ocean plastics are less than 10 millimeters long, small enough to be mistaken for food by small fish like anchovies and sardines. Those fish are at the bottom of the food chain, eaten by the fish that we eat. Based on recent studies, scientists estimate that more than 50% of the human population has microplastics in our gut (we’re talking really micro in this case - particles far smaller than the five millimeter threshold that defines microplastics).
While the possible effects on human health remain unclear, synthetic plastics are a threat to the human population in another, undeniably pressing way. Plastics are derived from fossil fuels, the extraction of which is notoriously bad for our environment. In fact plastic production is estimated to account for a whopping eight percent of annual oil production around the world. For each ounce of PET (the plastic that disposable water bottles are made out of) produced, five ounces of carbon dioxide are produced. Now take into consideration that around the world people produce a million plastic water bottles every minute. The emissions add up quickly and the global contribution of plastics to climate change can’t be ignored or underestimated.
This is all very alarming but what do we do about it? All we can do is to be more aware, be more considered and more purposeful in the things we buy and the choices we make. Stop buying single-use water bottles. Buy one bottle that will last and refill it. Say ‘no thanks’ to the plastic cutlery in your takeout packet, and make a point of leaving it at the store. Look for products that keep plastics out of the ocean by turning them into something with an extended use, like recycled PET textiles. Choose brands that use sustainable products like natural cork instead of cheaper plastic alternatives (check out our best-selling recycled cork flips). Pick up trash when you see it lying around. You can’t solve the plastic pollution problem alone, but if we all put in a little more thought, and move slowly away from our addiction to convenience, we can make a measurable difference together.