Plastic Planet: How did we get here?

Plastic Planet: How did we get here?

Plastic was invented to replace ivory. Now it is choking our oceans. What went wrong?

Plastic is polluting oceans, impacting biodiversity, and affecting human health. But it is our throwaway culture that has allowed this to happen. EJF believes in promoting a circular economy. A systemic change is needed where resources are valued, redesigned, and reused.

This series looks at our planet’s relationship to plastic: how has plastic moulded different cultures, job sectors, and perceptions, and how can we recast our plastic problem into a sustainable solution?

The name ‘plastic’, comes from the Greek plastikos, meaning capable of being shaped or moulded. Yet the material which seemed to offer so much because it is flexible is now plaguing the planet with its permanence.

A plastic-free planet should not be only for the privileged, but should also provide solutions and alternatives for many who depend upon this cheap, light, and accessible material. It is important that in the rush to become plastic-free, we do not suddenly turn to unsustainable or damaging alternatives.

And finally, in demonising plastic, we are overlooking one of the core reasons why plastic is plaguing our planet: our “take, make, waste” mentality.

Photo by Arkkrapol Anantachote

Plastic: From environmental saviour to environmental ruin

When plastic was first developed, it was as an environmentally friendly alternative to ivory. Plastic was hailed as the material that would save elephants. So what went wrong?

The Making of a Plastic Planet

In the late 19th century, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness exposed "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience". He was describing the slaughter of 50,000 elephants.

From ornaments to mathematical instruments, crucifixes to combs, buttons, musical instruments, toys and false teeth: ivory was the 19th century’s plastic.

With elephant populations falling, Phelan and Collender, the largest maker of billiard balls in the USA, offered $10,000 in gold to anyone who could come up with a synthetic substitute for ivory in billiard balls .

Chemist John Hyatt invented celluloid in 1870 – the first partially synthetic plastic material.

But the material did have a fairly major drawback – the balls would sometimes explode on collision.

So in 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite. This was the first entirely synthetic plastic.

Plastic was seen as an innovative solution that solved an impending environmental crisis. One celluloid pamphlet read:

“as petroleum came to the relief of the whale, so has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer."

Just as ivory was demonised, and rightly so, plastic pollution is now harming wildlife all over the plant. But should we be concerning ourselves with the way we use plastic more than the material itself?

Already, there are concerns that in rushing to move away from plastic packaging, many are forgetting the environmental benefits that came with replacing glass and heavier materials with plastic. For example, Garcon Wines, a London based startup, have launched wines that can be delivered through a letterbox in a flat, plastic bottle design. Being 87% lighter and 40% smaller, this design carries a smaller carbon footprint, once you account for transportation and shipping.

Similarly, studies have suggested that paper shopping bags often carry a larger carbon footprint than plastic shopping bags as they are less likely to be reused. The carbon footprint of a bag which is reused is significantly lower than that of a bag which is recycled. Once again, this suggests that it is not simply plastic which is polluting the environment, but rather our throwaway economy.

When plastic initially replaced ivory, it was not created to be a single-use item. It was initially praised for its ability to create perfect replicas of increasingly expensive materials, such as tortoiseshell. But over time ‘cheap’ became synonymous with ‘throwaway’ and ‘replaceable’. This is why any solution to our current plastic problem must take place within a systemic change that considers the benefits of a circular economy.

The amount of unnecessary plastic that is produced is the issue that needs to be addressed. We need supermarkets to stop using plastic that is designed to be disposed of as soon as the packet is opened. This should not just be about making sure all plastic is recyclable, but considering whether the packaging is necessary at all.

It is no longer necessary to venture to Africa to understand the plight of the planet. We see it on our streets and screens in the form of harmful plastic pollution, diminishing biodiversity and degrading environments.

But with this problem there is also opportunity. With intelligent design and thoughtful development, this is a chance to address the greedy and insatiable ‘take, make, waste’ mentality which fuels plastic pollution, and to implement a circular economy. It remains vital to recognise the complexity of the plastic problem, and to ensure that the alternatives do not simply defer the environmental crisis for another 100 years.

UK plastics pact is promising but there is a long way to go
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