Plastic. You can’t avoid it. You’re probably touching some right now. If you eat fish you could be digesting some right now. It’s everywhere! And there’s a reason for this; plastic is incredible.
I love etymology, so it brings me great joy to tell you that the word plastic has its origins in the Greek language, unsurprisingly. It comes from the Greek word plassein which means “to mould”. But anyway… Plastic is the word used to describe a category of materials called polymers. Polymers are long chains of molecules that can slide over each other easily and make the material malleable.
My limited research to find when the first synthetic polymer was invented yielded many names. It seems your nationality determines what you claim is the first truly synthetic plastic and therefore who you claim is the inventor of this ubiquitous material. If you are from the United Kingdom, you will claim that Alexander Parkes was the inventor when he publicly demonstrated his new creation ‘Parkesine’ at the Great International Exhibit in London in 1862. Parkesine was a material “derived from cellulose that once heated could be molded, and retained its shape when cooled”. However, if you are from the United States of America, your website will likely claim that the first truly synthetic plastic was made by John Wesley Hyatt when he answered a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for a substitute to ivory by “treating cellulose, derived from cotton fiber, with camphor”. There are a few more names in Europe as well, but those two are the main ones.
Whoever you choose as your inventor (take your pick because they are all quite extraordinary gentleman), it seems that somewhere between the 1860s and the turn of the century is the dawn of synthetic polymers. Before you herald this as the beginning of the death of our planet, I would do well to inform you that it could be argued that elephants are still with us today thanks to this incredible invention. The American John Wesley Hyatt invented it in answer to needing a suitable substitute for ivory. Indeed, the aristocracy’s insatiable appetite for the new sensation of billiards was creating such a large demand for ivory billiard balls and other various ivory items that elephants were being slaughtered in their thousands. As you well know, the population has never recovered and faces new threats today.
However, jump forward in time to the present age and as with most technologies we cannot unequivocally make a statement on the morality of the plastic. First of all, as we are all probably aware, most plastic is recyclable. This means we could theoretically recreate and repurpose all the fantastic polymer based material we currently use and none of it has to have adverse effects on anybody’s environments. However, unless you operate with a level of wilful ignorance not seen since the dawn of time (AKA the invention of the internet) you will be aware that we are, as a species, woefully abysmal at containing plastic to the well-defined paths of industry and consumption and recycling that we have set out for it. Walk down any street, along any coastline, through any park, and you will not have to cast your eye very far to see that famous material that takes 450 years to degrade. Chlorinated plastic can leach harmful chemicals into the soil and groundwater, which is not good. Wildlife can mistake it for food, which can lead to death. Birds often use plastic material when making their nests. Essentially, littering the land with plastic is bad. But the impact is nothing compared to their presence in the oceans.
There is a global oil spill in the ocean, and it is plastic. It is estimated that there is 165 million tonnes of plastic in the oceans. That is a huge number, in case you didn’t realise. There is the North Pacific Gyre, otherwise known as the great Pacific garbage patch. It is a vast area in the North Pacific Ocean where sea currents, and all the plastic they contain, converge. Sea life can become entangled with plastic which can cause lacerations or ulcers, render them unable to hunt or escape predators, or suffocate or drown them. Ingestion is also common among marine life. Sea turtles hare now consuming twice as much plastic than they were 25 years ago according to one study. Small pieces of plastic are often mistaken as plankton by marine life. Ingestion can release harmful chemicals in the animal, can cause reproductive issues, can block the stomach and puncture internal organs, causing slow and painful death. We then eat the fish so it is not inconceivable that we could be consuming plastic when we do so. Then there are microbeads, if you haven’t heard of microbeads yet, look them up. Seriously.
Furthermore, most plastic is made from oil, which opens up a whole other line of controversy. Those ‘biodegradable’ plastics can also release a lot of methane (which is worse than carbon dioxide for its greenhouse effect) into the atmosphere when they ‘biodegrade’. There are so many areas to explore regarding plastic, and I would encourage you to do your own research, but my personal view is that in and of itself, plastic is an extraordinary material that has enabled our societies to develop in incredible ways, but we need to be better in how we deal with it once our use is finished. At the very least, I believe we need to ban plastic bags from our shops and microbeads from our products.
We are making great strides in increasing awareness of the affect our voracious appetite for plastic is having, and we need to continue this in our own way. Scold yourself and your friends every time your forget to bring your own bags to the supermarket, check the products you buy for microbeads, think about all the wasteful packaging you are encouraging when you buy unnecessary products. In short, we all need to think more and do more to stop drowning our planet in plastic.