As told by a female environmentalist
Nearly every time I visit the grocery store, I find myself grappling with the extremely frustrating situation of trying to find items that I can afford, are convenient, and that aren’t wrapped in copious amounts of plastic. As an environmentally conscious individual living in the twenty-first century, trying to make daily decisions that benefit myself and the planet is shockingly difficult. So there I am, week after week looking at cereal, queso fresco, and even strawberries, while internally feeling conflicted and confused as to why everything is covered in plastic. As Americans we are one of the countries consuming the largest amounts of plastic annually. While many of us are aware of the negative impacts plastic is having on our planet, we still find it everywhere, from the kitchen to the bathroom, from our home to the ocean. Plastic is surrounding us, making it harder and harder to avoid and to change. Which leads me to my main question: When and how did our human relationship with plastic begin?
Humans started flirting with the idea of plastic in 1869, when John Esely Hyatt developed the first synthetic polymer, but our relationship truly blossomed in 1907, when the so called father of plastic, Leo Baekeland, invented the first fully synthetic plastic. The discovery of this new product was revolutionary for the world of manufacturing. A lightweight, flexible, durable material that can take on almost any shape; these properties made plastic particularly appealing as it’s creators tried to replace materials in limited supply on our planet, such as wood, glass, metal, etc… You know, the materials things used to be made out of before plastic came along. World War II, however, is when we fell in love with plastic. As the demand for materials to support the war effort increased, plastic was there; from synthetic silk, or Nylon, for parachutes, to plexiglass for aircraft windows, plastic provided an affordable alternative to harvesting scarce natural resources. Within the United States we saw a surge of plastic production that started with WWII, but that continued long after.
Our relationship with plastic really got spicey when the war ended. Many people were just now finding themselves in a good place financially, having bounced back from the Great Depression, diving right into WWII, people came out of the war craving new products, and who was there? Plastic. Plastic production also created the opportunity to make products more affordable as it is relatively cheap to manufacture. Which meant that everyone could have their very own plastic Tupperware, plastic nylons, plastic plates, shampoo bottles; the industry exploded, and the rest is history. Humans fell in love with plastic. We bought up plastic products like they were going out of style, driving up demand, and with it, unfortunately, supply. In 1955 Life magazine even released an issue that encouraged housewives to purchase plastic kitchen ware that can be thrown away to cut down on household chores. This honeymoon phase is how plastic found it oh so easy to creep into every part of our lives.
It wasn’t til the 1960’s, when some of the first plastics were observed in the ocean, that we began to realize our relationship with plastic was too good to be true. It’s the type of relationship where you’re seeing red flag after red flag, friends are telling you to leave, family is telling you to leave, but we just couldn’t see it for ourselves. Now, more and more of us are starting to see the red flags. Over the years humans have learned that, despite the good intentions fueling the development of plastic, most of the plastics we know today are crafted with one essential ingredient: fossil fuels. This fact has led researchers Lisa Anne Hamilton and Steven Feit with the Center for International Environmental Law to share that our continuous consumption has very real greenhouse gas consequences at every stage in the life cycle of plastic.
“1) fossil fuel extraction and transport, 2) plastic refining and manufacture, 3) managing plastic waste, and 4) its ongoing impact in our oceans, waterways, and landscape.” (Plastic and Climate Change: the Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet)
If plastic production continues, it could push us over the edge in terms of carbon dioxide in our earth’s atmosphere. Additionally we have recognized that plastic does not biodegrade the same way that wood, paper, and other organic materials do, meaning it never goes away. Once organic material has been thrown away it gets eaten up by bacteria and transformed into a new compound, but for some reason, maybe the fact that it’s toxic, bacteria do not like plastic. So if plastic ends up in a landfill, it will sit there indefinitely, and as the chemicals making up plastic leach into the surrounding land, they pose a serious threat to our freshwater resources. And while we’re on the topic of water, if plastic ends up in the ocean, it goes through the magical process of photo-degradation. Plastic exposed to sunlight and water has the ability to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, making it easier for plastic to enter the food web. On top of that we now know that recycling plastic is an extremely difficult process, resulting in only 9% of all plastics within the United States actually being recycled. So where does the other 91% end up? The remaining non-recycled plastic is likely to end up in a landfill or in waterways leading to the ocean. No matter where plastic ends up, it is unhealthy for us and our planet. Humans need to wake up to the fact that we are in a toxic relationship with plastic. We need to say goodbye.
Transitioning away from this unhealthy plastic relationship will be difficult, but it is possible; humans have lived in a plastic-free world before. It will require that we forgive ourselves as consumers, and start to hold the creators of plastic accountable, demanding other sustainable, yet still affordable options. It is NOT OK that the burden of managing plastic waste created by major corporations with millions of dollars, is placed on the consumers and their communities to deal with. Not to mention it’s no secret that low-income, communities of color experience far more injustices due to the mismanagement of plastic waste. This lack of accountability is how we have ended up here. Citizen or community science has been a tool to support each other in our transition away from plastic. Local and Global community science opportunities, like Coastal Clean Up Day, provide the space for people to connect and empower each other while collecting data revealing the impact plastic is having on our planet. This data has then been leveraged in political settings to place restrictions or bans on plastic products, such as the plastic bag ban here in California. Humans are a powerful and resilient species, and we have the ability to recover from this unhealthy relationship, but we have to work together, not only to create the change we wish to see in our communities, but especially if we are going to hold the companies who create these plastic products accountable for their impact.
Be sure to follow our facebook and instagram pages below to stay tuned on the upcoming Coastal Cleanup 2020!