Our oceans are the home of millions of sea creatures, all of whom are dependent on humans to ensure it is kept in optimum condition to allow life to prosper.
But they have turned into the world’s biggest garbage bins!
Especially for the all-so-wonderful plastic we have been using for what seems like forever!
Which got me thinking, when was plastic invented and why has it become so entrenched in today’s society?
So, out came Inspector Allison to discover just that. What I learnt was fascinating……and scary!
Plastic originally meant “pliable and easily shaped”. It’s only in recent times that plastic has become a category of materials in its own right called polymers, meaning “many parts”.
Polymers are found in nature such as Cellulose, which is a cotton fibre. Plastic is sometimes made using natural substances like this, but mostly from the carbon atoms found in petroleum and fossil fuels, of which we are most familiar.
In 1869, almost 150 years ago, $10,000 was offered by a New York firm with a challenge – to provide a substitute for ivory. A gentleman by the name of John Wesley Hyatt, took up that challenge. He invented a substance by treating cellulose (cotton fibre) and camphor which turned out to be able to imitate materials such as tortoiseshell, linen, horn and ivory.
The result was revolutionary! It was hailed as the saviour of elephants and tortoise because now humans were able to protect them from further destruction and our ever-demanding needs.
Living standards rose due to plastics being obtainable and cheap to make, so material wealth exploded.
Bakelite was invented by Leo Baekeland. It was the first synthetic plastic ever made which meant it contained no natural molecules what-so-ever, being created from phenol and formaldehyde. 1907 saw the first viable and cheap methods developed. Due to its ability to act as an insulator, heat resistant and durable, it was perfect for the mass production of mechanical parts.
Polyethylene plastic was created in 1898, and then again in 1933. By 1953, humans had worked out how to make high-density polyethylene. You have most likely noticed on the bottom of some plastics is an arrow in the shape of a triangle with a number in it. This tells us what sort of plastic it is and so how to recycle it. Polyethylene is the one with the number 2 in it.
Due to the use of plastics in WWII, plastic production boomed by 300% and didn’t slow down when it ended. Nylon (synthetic silk) was used to make parachutes, ropes, body armour, and helmet lining to name just a few, and Plexiglas was used for aircraft windows instead of glass. Plastics began to replace things such as steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture. Essentially, pretty much every traditional material was able to be substituted for the cheaper plastic form.
Abundant material wealth was a real vision for the future because it was inexpensive, safe and sanitary, and was able to be moulded into anything, limited only by human imagination.
Plastic was only just becoming popular in the 1960’s as the word got around about how cheap and versatile it was, meaning less costs and more profit for business. People were also becoming more aware of environmental issues. Plastics waste turned up on the radar when the first piece of its debris was found in the ocean. In many circles, plastic was losing its reputation as a superior material. It was becoming seen as flimsy, cheap conformity and superficial.
Celloplast, a US company, designed and patented a new packaging using plastic described as “tubing for packaging purposes”. In 1960, Gustaf Thulin Sten, an employee of Celloplast, came up with the idea of sealing the bottom and giving it handles. This design was patented by Celloplast in 1965. Today, it is the design of every plastic bag you have ever received.
The 1970’s and 1980’s witnessed a huge increase in concern about plastic waste as it was fully known to last forever in the environment.
Plastic grocery bags were introduced in 1979 but were largely unused. People still preferred the paper sack bag, which remained the last stronghold to break through regarding the plastics era.
A conference was held in Somerset, New Jersey, in 1985 by the Society of Plastic Engineers Network Section about “New Materials and Profits in Grocery Sacks and Coextrusions”. They informed the attendees of the difference in costs between the paper bags ($30.00) and plastic bags ($24.00). At the time of the conference, plastic bags only held 25% of the market. By the end of 1985, 75% of supermarkets offered plastic bags to their customers. Within the next decade (1995), plastic bags had 80% of the market.
Most recently in New South Wales, Coles and Woolworths Supermarkets banned the plastic bag, encouraging customers to bring their own reusable bags, and offering multi-use plastic bags as a substitute. Coles then retracted on their ban and introduced marketing surrounding mini plastic grocery items, which in turn, angered many people. I’ve seen dozens of people advertising on the Facebook For Sale pages the desire to swap items which they have multiples of.
Call me crazy, but I think replacing plastic with plastic and offering plastic toys as a marketing tool is absolutely a contradiction not to mention hypocritical.
I thought the whole idea of the ban of plastic bags was in response to the ever-increasing plastic waste in our oceans, in a bid to cease contributing to it.
Maybe I am misreading something???
But I don’t think so.
In the news of late, is the increasing knowledge of just how much plastic garbage is choking the oceans and negatively effecting the marine life. At the end of the day, whatever a sea creature consumes, we do also if we consume them. And considering most of the plastic floating out there (a staggering 84%) contains at least one Persistent Bio-accumulative Toxic (PBT) chemical, it is highly likely it will find its way into our diet. According to a recent article I read regarding salt, it already has.
It is estimated 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic/rubbish enters the oceans every year, with the majority of it floating on the surface. It doesn’t tend to sink. Over time, the sun and waves break down the plastics into microplastics, which eventually is consumed by marine life.
A study of turtles’ diets discovered 74% of it is made up of ocean plastic. For the Laysan Albatross chicks from Kure Atoll and Oahu Island, 45% of their secretions contain plastic. 700 species of marine life have encountered marine debris. 92% of these interactions are with plastic, and 17% of those species are on the Red List of Threatened Species.
The ultimate problem is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). It is the biggest of five in the world. In order of size, these garbage patches are:
- North Pacific Gyre (1)
- Indian Ocean Gyre (2)
- South Pacific Gyre (3)
- South Atlantic Gyre (4)
- North Atlantic Gyre (5)
GPGP is located half way between Hawaii and California in the North Pacific Gyre. Size-wise it is twice as big as Texas and three times that of France, covering 1.6 million square kilometres. An intense sampling method was employed to determine just how much rubbish and plastic is floating around in the GPGP alone. It involved 30 boats, 652 surface nets and 2 flights to obtain an aerial view of the monster. It was quite difficult to obtain the statistics as GPGP’s location and size is constantly changing due to seasons and interannual variations.
The cost of the damage on marine life, including beach clean ups, is estimated at 13 billion USD.
The stats gathered for GPGP at the time of sampling are:
- At its highest point of density (centre) 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic is estimated in the GPGP
- Has an estimated weight of 80,000 tonnes or 500 Jumbo Jets.
- Taking into account the thinning of the patch out to the ends, its estimate to be closer to 100,000 tonnes, and between 1.1 and 3.6 trillion pieces of plastic.
- Per human on the planet = 250 pieces of plastic debris
- 180 times more plastic than food for marine life at the surface
- Sorted into four categories:
- Type H – hard plastic, plastic sheet, film
- Type N – plastic lines, ropes, fishing nets
- Type P – pre-production plastics (cylinders, spheres, disks)
- Type F – fragments made of foamed materials
Our plastic waste problem is astronomical! The damage to the planet is entirely our own fault. So, then, it is our responsibility and obligation to clean up our mess and find a better way of doing things.
So, what does the future hold for plastics? Are we going to have to get rid of them altogether? That would be the right and moral thing to do, don’t you think?
Well, truthfully, plastic is so ingrained into the very fabric of our society, the materials we make things out of including building products, technology such as computers, printers and mobile devices, lifesaving medical equipment, and hundreds of other things we use every day, that the task in itself would be bigger than astronomical!
The thing we humans have to do is find a different way of making plastic so that it is 100% biodegradable without any microplastics polluting the environment and affecting the health of animals and inevitably ourselves.
Many countries the world over are busy coming up with innovations which will help with the cleaning up of our disastrous garbage patches by creating plastics which are safer and more sustainable. Such ideas include:
- Turning plastics back into the fossil fuels from which they were made from
- Creating bio-plastics from plant crops instead of fossil fuels so they are more environmentally friendly and easier to bio-degrade
- Finding ways to make recycling more efficient
- Working out how to use the garbage for producing energy
No matter what the future brings to the table on this matter, it is not solely the job of our Governments and Leaders to figure out the solutions. As atrocious and disgusting as it is, we all helped put that plastic in the ocean. That means we all have a part to play in putting a stop to the continuation of the problem. If not, our children’s children will be having to apologise to upcoming generations on our behalf for destroying the most precious thing to us – planet Earth. It’s not like we have another option in the universe of where to live. The whole Mars and moon thing are mere fantasies and are a long way off ever becoming anything but.
Where can you start with your contribution to a cleaner world? Every person doing their small bit will have a ripple-effect out into the community and beyond.
Here are some ideas if you are stuck on getting started:
- Recycle as much as you can, taking advantage of any service that helps you to do this
- Compost, or take advantage of any services which help you to contribute to this
- Use your own bags when going shopping
- Buy products which are biodegradable wherever possible
- Purchase items with recyclable packaging
- Buy things made out of sustainable materials
- Reuse or upcycle as much as you can – use your imagination!
- Make things yourself (if you can)
- Make use of second-hand items and/or give away things which can be used by someone else
- Avoid putting anything in your general rubbish unless it absolutely has no other way of being used
The Ocean Cleanup https://www.theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/
The Science History https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics
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