When Leo Baekeland invented the world’s first entirely synthetic plastic – Bakelite – in 1907 it sparked a revolution. Within a few decades, the age of plastic had begun: everything from children’s toys to the war effort, fabrics (hello nylon!) to packaging ‘benefitted’ from this marvellous new material. By the middle of the century, it was being mass produced and it was everywhere. We couldn’t get enough of it.
Fast-forward a century from Baekeland’s discovery and our oceans are drowning in plastic waste: over eight million tonnes of it ends up in our seas every year. It’s estimated that 80% of all marine debris is plastic in one form or another – the impact on marine life and our oceans themselves is devastating. How did it come to this?
The power of plastic
The very things that made plastic so revolutionary – it’s versatility, near-endless durability; its low cost to produce – have helped turn plastic into the problem it is today. Except it isn’t that simple. Because in so many, many ways plastic is the revolutionary product it was first hailed to be.
Modern medicine, modern production, modern house building and transport; the phone, tablet or laptop you’re reading this on. These are just a few of the things we take for granted, that allow us to live our lives as freely and smoothly as we do, that in no small part are enabled by the miracle that is plastic.
Even at is most prosaic, it continues to prove its worth: by keeping goods fresher for longer, say, or reducing contamination and waste. Its lightness, its durability, makes it safer and easier to transport all sorts of goods – and not just to line our supermarket shelves with, but to send to places in desperate need. Used wisely and used well, plastic is good.
Why not all plastics – or plastic alternatives – are created equal
Which isn’t to say plastic isn’t a problem. It is. One of the biggest we face today. It’s hard not to look at the amount of waste plastic in the world today – its curse on our oceans, the creatures we share this planet with, the very atmosphere of the world we all live in – and think the solution is to Just. Stop. Using. It.
Again, it’s not that simple. Many of the so-called ‘green’ alternatives that are often suggested to replace come with their own complexities and complaints. Glass is fragile, heavy to transport (increasing its carbon footprint) and expensive to recycle; cloth bags require more water and energy to produce than their plastic alternatives and have to be used at least 131 times (more if it’s organic) before becoming a ‘better’ choice. A 2018 Danish study put that figure in the thousands, bringing a whole new meaning to ‘bag for life’.
What about metals? They’re light and durable, right? Yes, but they also need to be mined and are a limited resource. Bamboo grows fast and is plentiful, but the use of unregulated pesticides, transport costs, poorly managed logging and the rest can quickly offset that.
Which is not to say we shouldn’t continue to look for appropriate alternatives. Just that there’s no magic bullet. Or easy answers.
Single-use plastics – the bottles and drink stirrers and lids and bags (all those endless plastic bags) – are quite rightly held up as problems that need immediate solving, but even that’s not a straightforward debate. Healthcare, for example, relies on single-use items for everything from syringes to PPE to ensure a safe, sterile environment for both patients and those treating them.
Take a tip from a superhero
Perhaps the real issue, then, is less about separating the ‘good’ plastic from the bad, it’s about us – how our behaviour impacts the planet and how we choose to change that going forward.
To paraphrase the so-called Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) principle: with great technology comes great responsibility. When it comes to plastic, we haven’t exercised that responsibility very well up until now, but it’s not too late to change.
The circular economy keeps products and materials in use – the aim is to eliminate waste and pollution, to encourage us all to reuse and reappropriate and recycle. If we reduce the amount of plastic we produce, ensure a plan of use for its full life cycle, and take responsibility –individually and collectively – to meet that, we can bring significant, positive change.
Thinking – and shopping – smarter is a good place to start. Saying no to excessive packaging, buying in bulk, refilling and reusing rather than throwing away, just as we do at Love Ocean.
The Plastic Age was supposed to revolutionise the way we live – and in so many ways it has. It’s our turn now to repay that debt. Our beautiful planet – and all we share it with – will thank us for it.
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