“I want to be plastic,” Andy Warhol said. Warhol loved plastic so much that in 1966 he called his new show the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, because at that stage plastic had become part of the fabric of modern life.
Andy’s dream is coming true. Fish, animals, birds, and humans are ingesting plastic daily. We are eating and drinking microplastic and breathing in nanoplastic. (A microplastic is a very small piece of plastic pollutant that is less than 5 mm in length. A nanoplastic is typically less than 100 nanometers in size; a human hair has a diameter of about 75,000 nanometers.)
Plastic has become so common that geologists are noticing the emergence of a sedimentary layer of plastic. This is how “modern” humans will be remembered. We turned the world into plastic. All for our own convenience. All because we wouldn’t clean up after ourselves. All because it was so cheap it was irresistible. And we did it, historically speaking, in the blink of an eye.
In wasn’t until the 1940s that plastic truly bloomed, though its roots go back a bit further. Ironically, environmentalism was one of the motivations for the creation of plastic. In late nineteenth-century USA, the game of billiards was very popular. Billiard balls were at that time made from ivory, resulting in the slaughter of a huge number of elephants. The invention of the first plastic billiard ball wasn’t a great success, though. The celluloid was volatile, and when two billiard balls cracked together, a small explosion (like a gunshot) often occurred, which didn’t go down well in Western saloons. (The plastic bag was another response to the environment, invented to save trees.)
Plastic is so cheap to create because it is usually made from the waste material from oil production. It’s much cheaper to manufacture a finished plastic product than it is to make a steel or wooden one. This is because of plastic’s malleability. Pour some hot plastic into a mold and out pops a plastic part. Plastic bags, for example, require very little energy and raw materials. It takes three times the energy to create an equivalent paper bag and 131 times the energy to create a similar-size cotton one.
As the 20th century progressed, more and more types of plastic were developed. It wasn’t just Warhol who thought of plastic as a wonder product. Chemists dreamt of “Plastic Man” who would “come into a world of color and bright shining surfaces… a world in which man, like a magician, makes what he wants for almost every need,” British chemists Victor Yarsley and Edward Couzens wrote. Plastic Man would grow up “surrounded by unbreakable toys, rounded corners, unscuffable walls, warpless windows, dirt-proof fabrics, and lightweight cars and planes and boats.” In old age, he would wear plastic glasses and plastic dentures, and when he died, he would be “hygienically enclosed in a plastic coffin.”
The magic of plastic was the magic of innovation, invention, modernity and convenience, at a price that was so cheap it was irresistible. Promoting the benefits of throwaway plastic, House Beautiful magazine assured readers in 1953 that, “You will have a greater chance to be yourself than any people in the history of civilization.”
Again and again, we are told that our products, whether they be plastic chairs or smartphones, will allow us to be more ourselves. There is truth in that, though it’s not the whole truth. First, we make the tool, then the tool makes us. We must stop our products making us. We must resist the call of the new. We are made of better stuff than to be defined by what we buy.
Plastic trained us well. We learned to throw away rather than to pick up, to discard rather than to repair. We weren’t always so wasteful. “In the US, prior to 1950, reusable packaging such as glass bottles had a nearly 96% return rate,” Stephen Buranyi wrote for The Guardian. By the 1970s, it had dropped to a 5% return rate. If we once were able to reuse and return things, then we have the capacity to change back to those more environmentally friendly ways.
Plastic production began to take off with the advent of the Second World War, with US plastic production tripling between 1939 and 1945. But that was just a taste of what was to come. In 1950, worldwide production of plastics was two million tons. By 2017, it was 400 million tons. It’s estimated that there are now more than eight billion tons of plastic, with over 80% of it dumped as waste. As with data, most of the plastic that exists today has been made in the last decade and it’s predicted that plastic production will double by 2035.
Oceans of waste
A lot of this plastic ends up in the oceans, where it often gathers as enormous garbage patches, the largest of which is three times the size of France. Plastic is pretty much impossible to get rid of, but it does break down over time, into microplastics and nanoplastics.
“To sea turtles, plastic bags in the water can look like jellyfish, floating on the surface plastic can appear to be a tasty snack for a seagull, and to baby perch it appears more appetizing than the plankton they are supposed to eat,” Ian Johnston wrote for The Independent. Plastic nurdles are particularly damaging to ocean life. These pellets of plastic are the raw materials from which plastic goods are made. “It isn’t hard to see why birds mistake them for fish eggs and gulp them down,” Michael Lucy wrote for Cosmos.
Research published by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 2019 estimated that our oceans could hold a million times more plastic than previously estimated. A 2016 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report estimated that by 2050 the weight of plastic in the oceans will be greater than the weight of fish. In San Francisco, it’s estimated that rainfall washes more than seven trillion microplastics off the streets and into San Francisco Bay each year.
A study by University of Newcastle, Australia, estimated that we could be ingesting a credit card’s worth of plastic every week. Another study by King’s College London, found London air contained so much plastic that each day from 575 to 1,008 pieces of plastic fell to the ground per square meter, with 15 different plastics identified. Microplastics and nanoplastics are magnets for toxins, which wrap around the plastics, only to separate when ingested by fish, birds and humans. Once loosed from the plastic, the toxins migrate to the flesh and organs.
There is no place on Earth you can escape plastic waste. There is no “away” where you can throw plastic. It will always land, sink, float or rise somewhere. Mount Everest is littered with plastic. The Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, is home to plastic waste. The most isolated, uninhabited Pacific islands are inundated with plastic waste.
Plastic is in practically everything. You wouldn’t think teabags are made from plastic. A study found that a single teabag at brewing temperature “released about 11.6 billion microplastic and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles into the water.” About 50% of a new car or plane is made up of plastic. A typical computer can be up to 40% plastic. It’s estimated that 336,000 metric tons of plastic were used in the manufacture of cell phones in 2017, up from 282,000 metric tons in 2013. Most clothes contain significant quantities of plastic, as we’ll see in the next chapter. Every year about 250,000 single-use tents are left behind at UK music festivals. These tents cost about £25. Why would anyone bother recycling or hanging on to them?
The recycling con
Plastic recycling has always been much more a PR stunt than a reality. Of all the plastic produced, only about 10% has been recycled. Even the plastic you can recycle degrades every time you recycle it. You can recycle glass and steel almost endlessly and still get the same quality, but not plastic.
In the 1970s, there were serious moves to curtail the use of plastic. Big Plastic used the “Guns don’t kill people” defense to tremendous effect. Through clever messaging, they managed to blame the consumer. Plastic doesn’t kill people. Instead, the sloth and laziness of ordinary people is the root cause of the problem. Whatever you do, don’t blame industry. We just produce the plastic. The spinmeisters promoted recycling and personal responsibility and won the day.
We can’t contain the menacing flood of plastic, we are told, because of the jobs, because of our growth-at-all-costs culture, because of the sheer convenience that plastic brings to our lives. To uproot plastic is to change the economy. To change the economy we must first change the universal human culture that prizes convenience, cheap stuff and more stuff over the long-term sustainability of life on this planet.
We must move from a culture where the human is primary and all Earth is there for our consumption and convenience, to one where humans are part of the Earth, part of nature, and where we all need to play a part for the health and happiness and long-term survival of the whole.
But plastic does good, we hear. Plastic keeps those vegetables and fruits fresh and allows us to import our exotic desires from great distances. Selling grapes in sealed trays versus in loose bunches can save as much as 20% in waste, we are told. Our costing models are flawed. We calculate everything based on the near-term and so little on the long-term.
The greater the speed we move at, the more we become short-term thinkers. We see the rotting fruit as a loss to the supermarket. We don’t see the plastic waste that never rots as a loss for our planet and everything on it. But plastic still has a role to play, they say. Plastic packaging is lighter, cheaper and stronger than other packaging materials. The answer is not alternative packaging. The answer is radically less packaging. Bring our own bags, collect stuff, receive stuff in reusable packages and give those back. Less convenient for sure. We can do this. The effort is so worth it.
We have created an economics that gives to the present by taking from the future. We calculate short-term, immediate costs. What is the total lifetime cost of a piece of plastic, a smartphone, or a digital image? Who pays to clean up the seas and the data lakes?
Loop is a company that creates high-quality, reusable packaging for foodstuffs. A variety of food products are delivered to the home, then when used, the containers are sent back and cleaned and used again. This sort of circular economy thinking is vital.
I have been told about a Belgian farming initiative whereby every year the farmers and local families invest together in the coming year’s crop. In return, families will receive a weekly basket of produce. This model supports local farming by providing upfront capital and risk sharing. (If some of the crops fail, the families accept that they will get less.) Packaging is greatly reduced because all the produce is delivered in one reusable basket. Key to reducing packaging is going local; the closer we are to the source of the product, the less packaging will be required.
It’s not too late for us to change, though, as Bob Dylan sang, “it’s getting there.” In recent years, the public have truly awakened to the dangers of plastic. Some countries have started taxing plastic bags. African countries such as Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda are leading the way when it comes to banning plastic. There is progress. We need a lot more.
Avoid plastic packaging. Bring your own bag and avoid the barcodes. Whenever you can replace plastic with another material, do, but don’t replace it simply for the sake of it. If you have a plastic bag, use the hell out of it.
World Wide Waste
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- The simple idea that could be the answer to our plastic problem: reusable packaging, Joel Makower, World Economic Forum, 2019
- The plastic backlash: what’s behind our sudden rage – and will it make a difference? Stephen Buranyi, The Guardian, 2018
- Some plastic with your tea? Nathalie Tufenkji, McGill, 2019
- Greenpeace: And our survey says…Ban the bead! Greenpeace, 2016
- A bold plan to ban single-use plastic in nation of 1.3 billion has been shelved, Manveena Suri, CNN, 2019
- Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made, R. Geyer, J. Jambeck, K. Lavender Law, Science Advances, 2017
- How plastic is damaging planet Earth, Ian Johnston, The Independent, 2017
- Ending the age of plastic, Michael Lucy, Cosmos, 2018
- The ocean is teeming with microplastic – a million times more than we thought, suggests new research, Johnny Wood, World Economic Forum, 2019
- Will there be more fish or plastic in the sea in 2050? Leo Hornak, BBC, 2016
- ‘Throwaway Living’: When Tossing Out Everything Was All the Rage, Ben Cosgrove, TIME, 2014
- Plastic fantastic: How it changed the world, Robert Plummer, BBC, 2018
- The biggest likely source of microplastics in California coastal waters? Our car tires, Rosanna Xia, LA Times, 2019
- A Brief History of Plastic’s Conquest of the World, Susan Freinkel, Scientific American, 2011
- The environmental cost of dumping your tent at the Electric Picnic, Aurore Julien, RTE, 2019
- Fossil fuel industry sees the future in hard-to-recycle plastic, Deirdre McKay, The Conversation, 2019
- War on plastic waste faces setback as cost of recycled material soars, Jillian Ambrose, The Guardian, 2019
- ‘Sustainable’ Lego: Why plastics from plants won’t solve the pollution crisis, Sharon George, Deirdre McKay, The Independent, 2018
- Plastic packaging problem: Five innovative ideas, Katharine Rooney, World Economic Forum, 2019
- The battle to break plastic’s bonds, Victoria Gill, BBC, 2019
- Africa is leading the world in plastic bag bans, Ephrat Livni, World Economic Forum, 2019
- You eat a credit card’s worth of plastic a week, research says, Emma Charlton, World Economic Forum, 2019
- Things You Didn’t Know About Plastic (and Recycling), Lilly Sedaghat, National Geographic, 2018