About Plastics

    Today, Plastics are the number one enemy of the environment. 

    Plastics are filling up landfills, polluting oceans and hurting wildlife.  

    How did we get here?

    The History of Plastics

    Plastics were first invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt. He produced the first synthetic polymer as a substitute for ivory. He took cellulose from cotton fibers and treated it with camphor (oil extracted from camphor trees) and discovered that it could be molded into a variety of shapes for different uses, and was inexpensive to produce.

    This was a revolutionary discovery. It not only helped reduce the number of elephants killed for their ivory but also helped protect tortoises who were being killed for their shells. This manufacturing development was not only a success for people but for the environment. 

    The first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was invented in 1907. It was made by combining the chemicals phenol and formaldehyde (derived from coal tar and methanol). 

    It was superior to the earlier celluloid plastics that were highly flammable, easily dissolvable, and quicker to soften with heat.

    Due to its excellent insulating properties, Bakelite helped usher in a new era of electric power, replacing shellac and hard rubber. During the 1920’s and 30’s, its use spread to home appliances, radios, automobiles, and jewelry. 

    In the 1930’s and after, more types of synthetic plastics were discovered and produced that had improved qualities over Bakelite, such as improved color and clarity. Bakelite can still be found today in game pieces, like dominoes, mah-jong, checkers or chess.

    World War II saw a great expansion in the types and uses of synthetic plastics. Plexiglas was used for widows and synthetic silks were used for parachutes, ropes, and other military equipment. 

    After the war ended, the production of plastics did not decline. Plastics continued to take the place of other materials in many industries. Plastics were seen as a safe, sanitary and inexpensive alternative for producers and consumers.

    The Introduction of Recycling

    In the 1960’s the view on plastics began to change when plastic waste was first observed in the ocean. Increased environmental concerns of the 70’s and 80’s continued to contribute to a worsening view of plastics. A lot of plastic products were disposable, but they do not degrade in the environment. They last forever as plastic waste. There is also a great concern about chemicals leaching off of plastics and poisoning the environment.

    It was the plastic industry that offered up recycling as a solution to the problem, in the 1980’s. In a recent joint investigation, NPR and PBS’s Frontline revealed that the oil and gas companies that produce the plastics never believed that recycling would succeed. When plastics started to be viewed as the big bad guys for the environment, they knew that bans on plastic production would be next. So, they countered with a big push for recycling, taking the focus off of the producers and putting the onus on the consumers, to thwart any potential plastic bans. 

    (You can learn more about it in the documentary Plastic Wars, from PBS Frontline, Season 38, Episode 15.)

    Despite local recycling programs across the country, recycling has not been successful. Only 10% of plastic waste has been recycled in the past 40 years. Which means that the bulk of the plastic that we put in our recycling bins each week ends up in landfills or polluting the ocean.

    Not all Plastics are Evil

    Despite the negative environmental effects of the overproduction of plastics and the lack of proper recycling, there are some good aspects of plastics that can not be ignored. 

    In the medical and health care industry, single-use plastics are vital to infection control. From simple blood tests to major surgeries, plastic gloves, plastic syringes and tubing, even heart valves and MRI machines, plastics have become indispensable to medical professionals.

    Before the widespread use of plastics, medical offices and hospitals relied on glass and rubber. But glass is fragile, and rubber is expensive, so both were often reused and presented challenges with cleaning. 

    Single-use plastics are also important to the scientific research industry. Cross-contamination of samples can invalidate results and set back important discoveries. A lot of medical advances would not have been possible without the strength and resilience of plastic.

    Domestic and international aid efforts, and emergency responses would not be possible, or as effective as they are without food and water that can be stored and transported efficiently and inexpensively to be distributed when and where it is most needed. Only lightweight plastic makes this possible.

    Where does the waste come from?

    Most of the plastic waste produced around the world comes from food packaging. Although plastic is important in protecting our food from contamination, pests, microbes and humidity, and is responsible for reducing food waste, it can not be ignored as a major player in the plastic waste that is harming wildlife and polluting our oceans. 

    But since food waste contributes to climate change, water and energy usage, deforestation and biodiversity losses, lightweight plastics are the best option to combat this waste. 

    This is one of the reasons that it is so important to eat locally grown foods and shop at farmer’s markets. They do not require extra transportation (which burns more fuels and contributes to climate change) and often do not require plastic packaging because the distance and exposure between the farm and your table is significantly reduced.

    Although the US is the largest consumer of single use plastics, lower income countries contribute more to the plastics that end up in the ocean than higher income countries, due to the lack of proper waste management. There is a caveat to that. The US ships more than half of their plastic waste overseas to be recycled. Once there, it is not being properly recycled, and most of it is ending up in the ocean.

    The Future of Plastics

    Plastics have become invaluable to our daily lives. Banning their production and use entirely would create more problems that it would prevent.

    However, there have been some recent innovations that may help reduce plastic waste. Scientists are working to develop bioplastics which are made from plants instead of fossil fuels. They are creating substances that can hold up as well as traditional plastics but still be fully biodegradable within a year. There are amazing things being done with olives, sunflowers, fish waste, algae and even mushrooms.

    Hopefully all these innovations will become mainstream and be used to replace some of those plastics that have become the worst offenders to the environment.

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