The problem with plastics

In 1869, a New York firm put up a $10,000 prize for anyone who could make a synthetic version of ivory. The popularity of billiards and pool was suffering from a shortage of the ivory used to make the balls. The firm wanted an alternative.

The first synthetic polymeric organic compound – what we now call plastic – was generated by an apothecary, John Wesley Hyatt. He treated gun cotton (generated by reacting cotton with sulphuric and nitric acid) with alcohol and camphor. The resulting sticky mass was allowed to harden, generating a substance he called celluloid.

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This new compound could be molded into just about any shape imaginable. It could be coloured and made to look like natural substances such as tortoise shell, horn, linen, and ivory. And the invention of celluloid helped to protect elephants and tortoises, possibly saving both from extinction.

In 1907, Leo Baekeland generated the first truly synthetic polymer from a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde. Bakelite was a thermosetting plastic, which means it could be shaped by heating. Baekeland had originally been searching for a way to replace shellac used in the new electrical industry but bakelite was more than just a good insulator. It was durable, heat resistant once set, and ideal for mass production so it was marketed as the material with a thousand uses.

Over the next 50 years, numerous other synthetic organic polymers were created – polystyrene in 1929, polyester in 1930, polyvinylchloride and polyethylene in 1933, and nylon in 1935. Plexiglass, which has risen to prominence in the past nine months, was invented by Otto Röhm in 1933 and found utility as a shatter-proof alternative to glass during the Second World War.

So it is perhaps not too surprising that we entered the plastic age in the 1950s. Here was a material which was inexpensive to produce, safe and sanitary, easily manufactured, and could be molded into a myriad of shapes and uses. As Mr. McGuire says, in the Graduate (1968): “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?” to which Ben replies: “Yes, I will.”

But the plastic age quickly lost its lustre. From humble beginnings of only two million tonnes per year in 1950, the industry grew to eight million tonnes per year in 1960 and 360 million tonnes per year today. However, in the 1960s, oceanographers and marine biologists were already reporting the presence of plastic in the oceans. Floating debris and birds with ingested plastic pieces in their stomachs were recorded all over the world.

Plastic also became synonymous with cheap, flimsy, and fake. It was associated with toys and cheap disposable items. The term became symbolic of conformity in society. Its very reason for existing – its versatility, utility, and inexpensiveness – had become a detriment. After all, no one thought anything about throwing away a plastic straw or set of utensils.

Being organic polymers, most plastics are sourced from the petroleum industry. Ethylene and propylene – which are used to make the two most abundant plastics, polyethylene and polypropylene – are directly available from natural gas and the other light fractions of the oil industry. Other compounds, such as nylon and PET, require chemical modification but the source material comes from a refinery.

This adds another millstone around plastic’s neck as they are all generated from a non-renewable resource with the process producing significant quantities of carbon dioxide. So, as the amount of plastic debris in our environment has grown over the past 50 years, a new term has been coined: plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution comes in many forms. Fishing nets that have broken free of their moorings and float through the ocean entangling sea life, referred to as ghost nets, are perhaps the most visible form in the oceans but there is much more. Everything from plastic bags, straws, cups, running shoes, those plastic rings used to hold together six packs of beer and pop, and microplastic pieces have been found floating in the seas much to the detriment of animal life.

It is estimated 10 million tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste finds its way into our oceans each year. Furthermore, a pair of recent reports in Science came to the conclusion that if we keep on our business as usual path, the number will creep up to somewhere around 80 million tonnes per year by 2040.

And that is just the oceans. It is actually much harder to measure plastic pollution in the terrestrial environment but it has been estimated to be three times that found in the oceans or 30 million tonnes per year.

Plastics are not all bad. For example, the use of plastics in cars is a big factor in increased fuel efficiency. But there is little doubt if we keep on the business as usual path, plastics will cause irreparable harm to our ecosystem.

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