Evolution of plastic
Plastic history and impact
Plastic can now be found everywhere. From the food we consume, to the water we drink, and even the air we breath - our exposure to plastic particles is increasing. The current state of the problem is not only complex but alarming when you consider human health consequences. According to a recent report shared by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF, 2019), one of the world’s leading conservation organisations, the average human consumes 5 grams of plastic every week, that’s the equivalent of ingesting a credit card every seven days!
The History of Plastic
The word Plastic has a Greek origin and is derived from plastikos which means moldable. It is produced from synthetic or naturally occurring materials and its composition consists of long chains of repeating molecules. In recent years we've seen a surge in plastic pollution, however it isn’t a new material, it’s actually been around for well over 120 years.
In 1856, Alexander Parkes produced a flexible material called Parkesine – a material derived from cellulose which is a substance occurring in plant cell walls and provides the stiffness we see in plants. The material was made publicly available 1862 and is therefore considered to be one of the earliest plastics. Fast forward to 1907, an industrial chemist named Leo Baekeland made a breakthrough by introducing the first-ever synthetic plastic called Bakelite which was derived from by-products of petroleum processing. Since these early discoveries, synthetic plastics have evolved significantly, most notable are the inventions of the 1960s, which include plastic carrier bags, and microbeads that are now commonly used as exfoliators in the cosmetic industry.
The scale of the problem
The problem with plastic, particularly those that are single-use, is that they do not degrade when discarded, instead they accumulate and contaminate the food chain and the natural environment for hundreds, if not thousands of years. To reflect on the relationship between our action and the impact on nature, we raise a notable example of a sea turtle named Olive Ridley. In 2015, this particular turtle was found washed up on the coast of Costa Rica with breathing difficulties. On investigation, conservationists found that it had a 10 cm long plastic straw lodged inside its nostril. As this example shows, the disposal of plastic products is impacting marine animals in the most awful ways and this needs to change. The same is true for micro-plastics. When ingested by marine species, these micro pellets enter the food chain and pass through the food web very quickly, leading to huge ecological imbalances.
From production to disposal, the complete life-cycle of plastic is fraught with environmental consequence. It’s now estimated that 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced annually, and about “8 million tonnes of that ends up in oceans every year” (UNEP, 2017). The production of synthetic plastic also accounts for “4-8% of global oil consumption, which is estimated to increase to 20% by 2050” (Bauman, 2019), meaning the impact of plastic production on climate change cannot be underestimated either. Moreover, an opinion article by Gasperi and his co-researchers states that the additives found in plastic cause severe health effects in humans, and some of these can lead to genetic mutation, reproductive toxicity, and cancers (Gasperi et al., 2018).
What can be done
The management of plastic waste is a daunting challenge. Several countries have already banned a growing number of single-use plastic products and are committed to adopting a plastic-free approach. But, there is still a need to define ambitious global policies, and regulatory frameworks that monitor and control production, usage, and disposal of plastic products. More than ever, we need collective action, and a new set of norms to transform consumer behaviour. After all, change starts from within, and you could start making small changes today. This could be as simple as eliminating the use of a single plastic straw, which would collectively remove 8.3 billion straws from circulation if every person on the planet followed suit - just once. It’s time to recognise that small changes really do have a big impact with collective backing.
Bauman, B. (2019). How plastics contribute to climate change. Retrieved 2020, from Yale Climate Connections: https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/08/how-plastics-contribute-to-climate-change/
Johnny Gasperi, S. L. (2018). Microplastics in air: Are we breathing it in? Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health, 1- 5: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322144166_Microplastics_in_air_Are_we_breathing_it_in
UNEP. (2017). UN Declares War on Ocean Plastic. Retrieved from UN Environment: https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/08/how-plastics-contribute-to-climate-change/
WWF. (2019). No Plastic in Nature: Assessing Plastic Ingestion from Nature to People. Retrieved from https://wwfeu.awsassets.panda.org/downloads/plastic_ingestion_web_spreads_1.pdf