Plastics: Where They Began, Where They Go, and What to Do About Them


Plastic is pretty much in every part of our lives. From bathroom toiletries, to food wrappers, to the electronics we use. But have you ever stopped to wonder where plastic started and how it became the environmental hazard, we know it as today? Why did we need plastic? Prior to the invention of plastics, humans exploited ivory as a durable material for items. In fact, people had been using ivory for longer than most realize. In the Gravettian culture in Europe (dating back 33,000 years) people used mammoth ivory [1]. In more recent times, humans used ivory from elephants as their go-to material. But one thing became clear - we were leading elephants to extinction by over-use of their ivory tusks. Durable Substitute A substitute for ivory that was just as durable was needed. The first efforts to create a substitute were led by Alexander Parkes, a British inventor who shared his plastic, Parkesine, at the 1862 International Exhibition in London [2]. However, due to several challenges the product faced, including its flammability, it never went far. Another inventor, American John Wesley Hyatt created a different version of plastic. Hyatt, along with his brother Isaiah, patented their invention, which they named Celluloid, in 1870 [3]. However, due to issues like softening under heat, flammability, and cracking with age, celluloid would see its only real success in the movie business which used it until the 1930s.

Finally, in 1907 a Belgian chemist by the name of Leo Baekeland created a new type of plastic he named Bakelite. This revolutionary and world changing plastic was made from derivatives of coal and wood alcohol [4]. This was a turning point for the world. It wasn’t long before it went from a solution to a problem. From Then to Now Since the invention of plastics, in all its forms, the world has seen a dramatic increase in its usage. In 1950, 2 million tonnes (approx. 2,204,622 tons) of plastic was produced. Just 65 years later, in 2015, the world was producing 381 million tonnes (approx. 419,980,609 tons) of plastic per year [5]. That’s over 18,950% increase. A report on plastic production estimated that by the year 2015 the world had produced 8.3 billion tonnes (approx. 9,149,183,880 tons) of virgin plastic since the mid-1900s [2].

Here's another way to look at it. In 1960 less than 1% of household trash, in countries of middle to high income, was made up of plastic. Fast forward 45 years and more than 10% of household trash is made of plastic [2]. Recycling, Landfills, and Other Facts What’s happening to all this plastic when we’re done with it? Here’s the sad truth. A lot of it ends up in landfills. Globally, 55% of all plastics end up in landfills [6]. This percentage is far higher in the United States which is at roughly 75% [12].

Why is it ending up there? Partly because not all plastic is recyclable. Items that often can’t be recycled are plastic bags, straws, coffee cups, electronics and the list goes on and on. Don’t forget, if the plastic isn’t cleaned, it can’t be recycled either. All plastics need to be washed out to have a chance at becoming something new [6]. If your local municipality doesn’t accept certain types of plastics or the plastics are dirty, they will be sent to the landfill. Even when items are successfully recycled, the plastic is downgraded. The same piece of plastic can only be recycled 2-3 times before it can no longer be used [6]. This is unlike glass that can be recycled endlessly without losing quality or purity [7]. Our World in Data has a fantastic visual to show you the fate of our plastics, even when they are recycled.

Let’s not forget about the plastic that doesn’t get recycled or end up in a landfill. I’m talking about litter. A lot of that littered plastic ends up in our oceans. By a lot, we’re talking 10 million tons end up in our oceans every year. That’s roughly a garbage truck load every single minute [8]. Plastic & Fossil Fuels Many people forget that 99% of plastic is actually made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels [9]. As of 2019, 4-8% of annual global oil consumption was associated with plastic production [10]. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is, and it’s going to get bigger. Between 2020 and 2040 BP expects plastic to represent 95 percent of the net growth in demand for oil [10]. We know fossil fuels are a major contributor to climate change and plastics are a part of that.


What Can I Do? Plastic waste is a big global problem, but it’s the United States, as of 2010, that produces the most plastic waste per person [5]. And sadly, we only recycle about 9% of plastics, 10% less than the global the rate.

The best thing we can do is to stop plastics at their source. Things you can do include: -Push for policy changes by writing your elected officials, both local and national. -Tell companies, with your money and your voice, that you’re not interested in plastics and you want them to change. -Sign petitions that support the reduction of plastics in your local area, nationally, and globally. -Ask your school or work to go plastic-free. -Avoid plastics, especially single-use plastics whenever and wherever you can. -Share this article with friends and family and tell them you’re going to reduce your plastic usage and encourage them to do the same.

 

Sources

[1] Ecology Center. “History of the ivory trade with special reference to Africa.” 19 Feb 2022. https://www.ecologycenter.us/elephant-populations/history-of-the-ivory-trade-with-special-reference-to-africa.html#:~:text=People%20of%20the%20Gravettian%20culture,of%20simple%20carvings%20or%20jewels.

[2] Cirino, Erica. Thicker Than Water. Washington, DC. Island Press. 2021.

[3] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica; “John Wesley Hyatt.” 24 Nov 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Wesley-Hyatt.

[4] The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. “Bakelite.” 22 Jul 2009. https://www.britannica.com/science/Bakelite.

[5] Ritchie, Hannah and Roser, Max. Plastic Pollution. Sep 2018. https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution.

[6] Lilly Sedaghat. 7 Things You Didn’t Know About Plastic (and Recycling). 4 April 2018. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2018/04/04/7-things-you-didnt-know-about-plastic-and-recycling/

[7] Glass Packaging Institute. Glass Container Recycling Loop. https://www.gpi.org/glass-recycling-facts#:~:text=Glass%20Facts,loss%20in%20quality%20or%20purity.

[8] Plastic Oceans. Plastic Pollution Facts. https://plasticoceans.org/the-facts/

[9] Center for International Environmental Law. “Fossil Fuels & Plastic.” https://www.ciel.org/issue/fossil-fuels-plastic/#:~:text=Over%2099%25%20of%20plastic%20is,in%20the%20US%20and%20beyond.

[10] Bauman, Brooke. “How plastics contribute to climate change.” 20 Aug 2019. https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/08/how-plastics-contribute-to-climate-change/

[11] Roberts, David. “Big Oil’s hopes are pinned on plastics. It won’t end well.” 28 Oct 2020. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/21419505/oil-gas-price-plastics-peak-climate-change/

[12] Loria, Kevin. “ The Big Problem With Plastic. 8 Sep 2021. https://www.consumerreports.org/environment-sustainability/the-big-problem-with-plastic/