A Brief History On Plastic
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a large (the largest on earth) accumulation of plastic floating around in the middle of the pacific ocean. Although in recent years, society has come to be more aware of the consequences with our dependance on synthetic polymers (plastic), it is also deeply vital to remember that the reason industrial plastic even exists, was to help conserve the very thing that it devastates today, wildlife.
The year is 1863 and the sport of billiards is a pass-time that’s quickly gaining popularity in a civil-war era United States of America. Tumultuous. The popularity of billiards is growing so quick that it’s starting to put a strain on the supply of natural ivory — the material of choice for billiard balls. Obtained through the slaughter of wild elephants, in their thousands — each set of balls costs the lives of 2 of these magnificent beasts. Michael Phelan, father of American billiards, was eager to find an alternative to ivory and thus offered a generous $10,000 ($200,000 today) to anyone who could successfully find a suitable substitute-material for the balls. Bear in mind that in those days, chemistry and material science is still in its infancy. Enter, John Wesley Hyatt. American inventor and one of the founding fathers of industrialised plastic, the first synthetic polymer. Eventually succeeding after 6 years of experimentation, Hyatts invention (celluloid) went on not only to replace billiard balls, but changed the industrialised world forever.
157 years later, in 2020, although it’s hard to realise how plastic in itself is a truly remarkable material, plastic has proven itself to be an essential part of our evolution. And while it is currently at the centre of a large environmental catastrophe, it’s clear that this wasn’t always the case. The post WWII US industrial expansion saw the meteoric rise of plastic-use for all sorts of weird and wonderful products. Designed and mass produced for a booming American economy, the myriad of applications and uses for the material seemed endless. Quickly establishing itself as the material of choice, it earned the status of a miracle material. In the living room, the kitchen, the office. The bedroom, bathroom and even your closet— plastic was everywhere and it was here to stay. With a booming human population after the 1950’s, together with the rise of consumerism, the worlds appetite for plastic became insatiable. In a span of 50 years, between 1950 and 2000, the annual production of plastic went from 2 million tonnes to 213 million tonnes and is currently sitting at around 360 million tonnes. If you accumulate all the plastic ever produce, you’d be sitting on a pile that weighs over 8 billion tonnes. To put that into perspective, that’s more than 1 tonne of plastic for every single person currently living on the planet. 1 tonne of plastic for each of us. With only 9% of that being recycled, the only logical question to ask is — where does the rest of it go?
As f*cked as Australia's state of recycling is, it ranks as one of the top recycling countries in the world. If we’re comparing ourselves to countries like The United States of America, we are indeed much more responsible citizens of earth than they are. However, the waste that decimates wildlife habitats all over the earth, doesn’t really care about from where it originates, the fact is, it’s there. And yes, our waste too contributes to that large environmental catastrophe currently unfolding in the middle of the ocean. Know how many single use plastic bags each one of us went through here in Australia in 2017? 224. Even if you say you haven’t, the stats say you have. We go through 1,000,000,000 (Billion with a capital B) coffee cups a year, which equates to 57,000 every 30 minutes. That’s not even the most shocking stat in this story. Of that Billion with a capital B, the total number of coffee cups we recycled, was a grand total of Zero — with a capital Z. That is, until not too long ago thanks to Simply Cups. Hopefully that stat will change over time. And no this is not a paid ad for Simply Cups. Just some genuine kudos after stumbling across them among all the other reading material that went into writing this piece. But I digress. Australians consume 136 kilograms of plastic per person, every year. Of which, only around 10% is recycled. The other 90% — 122.4kg is either put into the ground, burned, or ends up in mother natures once-prestine oceans.
The journey of plastics from shelf to ocean is quite an interesting one, albeit devastating. There are a few ways in which plastics get to the ocean. The fact that a lot of plastic is as light as a feather makes it quite a difficult material to handle. A considerable amount of plastic blows its way into water streams that take it directly to the ocean. Stormwater drains are a massive contributor to oceanic micro plastics, because yes you guessed it, they lead to open ocean water. In fact so does sewerage waste water in Australia too.
Outfall pipes are one way in which certain countries choose to deal with their waste water. This water contains everything under the sun — poo, pee, oil, plastic etc. and it’s carried deep into the ocean (the shortest pipe being 50m and the longest 55km). Outfalls don’t just go into the ocean, they go into rivers and estuaries too and these all lead to the ocean too. There are over 181 outfalls located across Australia.
The reason behind why these pipes exist? If the body of water is big enough, the toxic sludge will dilute and disperse. Out of sight out of mind, litrerally.
The other major route plastics find their way into the ocean, stems from blatant pollution and illegal dumping.
The bottom line is that plastics do not belong in the ocean and they make a pretty poor source of nutrition for wildlife. It is estimated that there are 100,000,000 (one hundred million) tonnes of plastic in the ocean which leads to over a million marine animal deaths each year. 50–80% of all dead sea turtles are found to have plastic inside them. 54% of all whales, dolphins and seals are impacted by plastic. It is estimated that by 2050, 99% of all seabird species — and 95% of all members of those species — will have consumed plastic.
Plastic is vilified as some pretty horrendous stuff in 2020, which is funny because the very thing it was created for in the first place, is the very thing it’s devastating the most, one-and-a-half centuries on. However plastic in itself is still an absolute marvel in respect to it being an engineered material. It’s uses are endless and has some pretty important applications. In this scenario, it really isn’t plastics that is to be blamed, but rather 1) our relentless use of it on an industrial scale and 2) our careless disposal of it once our use for it is complete. Sure our governments have a massive role in establishing effective infrastructure to handle waste material, but there is a much bigger onus on us, everyday people to handle every single piece of plastic that leaves our hand, in a conscientious way. Did it go in the bin? Should it go in the bin? Can it be recycled? Should you pick it up? Do you even need it? Reduce, reuse, recycle.
We humans of 2020 have become accustomed to plastic in our everyday lives and we forget it’s long-lasting, durable nature. With our dependance and overuse of the material, coupled with our ineffective methods of handling it once we’re done with it, one can’t help but ask if it’s actually plastic itself that’s the real problem, or something else all together.
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