Plastic is a word that originally meant “pliable and easily shaped.” The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt. For the first time human manufacturing was not constrained by the limits of nature. Nature could only supply so much wood, metal, stone, bone, tusk, and horn. But now humans could create new materials. At that time, it was thought plastics would protect the natural world from the destructive forces of human need and consumption.
In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, meaning it contained no molecules found in nature. Marketed as “the material of a thousand uses,” Bakelite could be shaped or molded into almost anything, providing endless possibilities.
According to author Susan Freinkel, “In product after product, market after market, plastics challenged traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture.”
During the 19th Century the global population went from 1billion to 10 billion people. Consumerism and demand had increased dramatically. Demands for things grew and the throw-away society was born.
Plastic debris in the oceans was first observed in the 1960s, as plastic gradually became a word used to describe stuff which was cheap, flimsy, or fake. Despite growing mistrust, plastics are critical to modern life. Plastics made possible the development of computers, cell phones, and most of the lifesaving advances of modern medicine. Lightweight and good for insulation, plastics help save fossil fuels used in heating and in transportation. Perhaps most important, inexpensive plastics raised the standard of living and made material abundance more readily available. Without plastics many possessions that we take for granted might be out of reach for all but the richest Americans. Replacing natural materials with plastic has made many of our possessions cheaper, lighter, safer, and stronger.
So, what’s gone wrong.
Although the ease of plastic production has generated cheap goods, we can see that 90% of products are used once, and then discarded, creating a global environmental crisis. Since the plastic revolution, 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste have been produced worldwide. We also store roughly 79% of plastic waste in landfills, which has resulted in up to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic waste entering oceans every year.
Durability, one of plastic’s greatest assets is now its curse–its robustness means that plastics stay in our environment for hundreds of years. Even when degraded, plastic never truly leaves the environment but is present as smaller pieces invisible to the naked eye (microplastics) that are choking marine life and propagating up the food chain. Alongside a solution to the existing plastic waste problem, a new plastic future is also required.
Biodegradable polymers along with reducing, re-using and recycling could impact the accumulation of plastics in the environment, but further developments are still required. However, if such biodegradable polymers were produced on an industrial scale, competition for land with food crops may become an issue.
We have begun the journey towards a new plastic future involving biodegradable polymers; we need to persevere together to reach the finish line, in order to protect our environment.
Shop Plastic free essentials edit
Here’s 4 things we can change today to help make a huge difference.
Bag for life
Use a reusable produce bag. A single plastic bag can take 1,000 years to degrade. Herd bags are also made from 100% recycled plastic.
On average we use 117 plastic water bottles a year - EACH! That equates to 7.7 billion plastic water bottles per year in the UK. Yellow Lids and Ocean Bottle are the must have reusable bottles.
Plastic free home
Find innovative solutions. Liga has a fantastic range of cork place mats and insulated mugs/jugs and cups. Cork is 100% natural.
Shake it up
Make your own cleaning products that will be less toxic and eliminate the need for multiple plastic bottles of cleaner. Mix clean green is the solution – just mix with tap water and put the cleaning solution in a re-usable bottle.