Take a moment to inventory the plastic found in your kitchen. What material is your Tupperware, utensils, cups, etc.? Now look at the food you purchased for the week and think about how it was packaged. Your fruit, meats, and snacks were wrapped in plastic or packaged in a resealable plastic bag or container. Now that you realize how much plastic your household consumes in a week, you may wonder how we have become so reliant on it.
Plastic is a material that has been around since the 1950s and has become a staple in our everyday life. While it is durable, we are beginning to realize its inability to biodegrade harms the environment. We need to act now to solve this problem; however, first, we need to identify why we created it in the first place. Edmund Burke once said, “Those that don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” For this reason, it’s time to become knowledgeable about the origins of plastic, thus helping us understand how we can successfully transition to using sustainable resources in the future.
Plastic’s Original Purpose
The creation of plastic dates back to 1869, when John Wesley Hyatt created a substitute for ivory (“The History and Future of Plastics,” n.d.). As billiards grew in popularity, the supply of ivory began to increase, leading to the mass slaughter of elephants for their tusks. By creating this synthetic polymer, we could avoid the depletion of our natural ivory resources. By 1907, Leo Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic plastic— this was the first product made without using a single molecule found in nature (“The History and Future of Plastics,”n.d.). As plastic manufacturing began to develop, it became a widely popular material due to its ability to be molded into many shapes and sizes.
While we used to praise the production of plastic for decreasing the depletion of our natural resources, we now understand the detrimental outcomes plastic has on our planet. Since the 1950s, we have created 18,200 lbs. (9.1 US Tons) of plastic (“Fact Sheet: End Plastic Pollution,”2018). To make the problem even worse, plastic takes anywhere between 500 to 1,000 years to decompose into what is known as microplastics. These microplastics result from plastic breaking down into microscopic bits that make their way into our ocean and poison our sea life.
As plastics make their way to the sea, bottom feeders eat these microscopic bits. As larger animals eat the smaller ones, the plastic concentration in aquatic life continues to travel up the food chain until it reaches our plate. Yes, that is correct, ladies and gentlemen! As we continue to dump plastic into our oceans, we will continue to eat the plastic remains that sea creatures digest. So, next time you think about purchasing another item packaged in single-use plastic, ask yourself if you think it will taste good if it lands on your plate in the future.
How to Solve the Problem
The problem is scary; however, the solution is simple. First, we need to minimize the use of single-use plastic as much as possible. Next, we must switch to sustainable products that decrease our single-use plastic consumption. Switching to reusable straws, cups, and utensils is a fantastic way to eliminate plastic without uprooting your lifestyle. Next, please donate as much as possible to keep our economy moving circularly. Lastly, we must become more sustainable and recycle as much single-use plastic as possible. If we can master these three simple rules, we can substantially decrease plastic percentage.
The History and Future of Plastics. (N/A). Science History Institute. Retrieved from https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics
Fact Sheet: End Plastic Pollution. (2018). Earth Day. Retrieved from https://www.earthday.org/2018/03/07/fact-sheet-end-plastic-pollution/