Take a moment and look around, you’ll see that plastic is everywhere. You’re reading this blog on a device made with plastic—either a phone or computer—you're probably sitting on a chair made of plastic and your clothing most likely contains plastic.
Plastic is an incredible material that has led to advancements in medicine and technology. It’s inexpensive, lightweight, moldable, and extremely durable. These properties make plastic the material of choice for many consumer products. They’re also what makes plastic so problematic.
WHAT IS PLASTIC?
First discovered in the early 1900s, plastic didn’t become a symbol of our consumer culture until after the First World War. A 1955 cover of Life Magazine shows a family carelessly throwing single-use plastic plates, cups, and cutlery into the air with a caption that said “Throwaway Living: Disposable Items Cut Down Household Chores.” For the American housewife, plastic was a revolutionary product that made life easier. Why wash dishes when you can just throw them away? This mentality made sense at the time, however, decades later we’ve come to understand there is no “away.”
When we talk about plastic, most people think it’s all the same. But did you know that there are many different kinds of plastic? Most plastics are made from chemicals that come from oil, natural gas, or coal. The chemicals are heated, causing them to break down into molecules. Then, the molecules are joined together to make chains, just like the paper garland strands you made in your elementary school classroom. The different combinations of molecules create different kinds of plastic.
Plastics are further altered when they are blended with additives and turned into consumer products. The additives alter and improve the basic mechanical, physical, or chemical properties of plastics. They protect plastics from degrading, provide color, structure, flame retardancy, and other special characteristics. Essentially, they enable the plastic to live forever.
SO, WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH PLASTIC?
Plastics are lightweight and can be easily transported by wind and water, which means it’s very easy for them to end up in the environment. Plastics don’t decompose or biodegrade. Instead, they photodegrade meaning the ultraviolet rays from the sun cause them to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, also known as microplastics. This makes it incredibly difficult to clean up and remove plastic pollution once it has entered the environment.
Certain plastics, like fishing nets and six-pack rings, entangle wildlife. Other plastics, like balloons and bags, are often mistaken for food. When animals ingest plastic, it can block their digestive tract, lead to starvation, and eventually death. Plastic can also end up on our dinner plates. When you eat fish, for example, there’s a high chance you’re also eating plastic since that fish likely consumed plastic particles.
Every piece of plastic ever made still exists today, unless it was burned, which releases toxic chemicals into the air. Recycling, which is promoted by the plastics industry as the solution to plastic pollution, isn’t actually a solution at all. Less than 10% of the plastic ever made has been recycled. The rest is either dumped into a landfill or incinerated.
More plastic was produced in the last decade than the entire century before that. The plastics industry is one of the fastest growing industries worldwide and the amount of plastic being produced continues to increase annually.
We’ve been taught for decades to “reduce, reuse, recycle.” In reality, we need to reuse, reuse, reuse. We must focus on removing as much single-use plastic from our lives as possible and shift our focus to reusables.