Why Are We Addicted to Plastic?

If you flip through social media or your favorite news app, you’ve probably seen an article espousing the dangers of plastic or a picture of a cute animal trapped in plastic waste. Your local Starbucks or smoothy shop might have even stopped offering plastic straws.  

Plastic is also on or in almost everything we buy. We have been using plastic forever! So, what is all the sudden uproar about?

In this blog we share 5 things:

  • What is plastic
  • How did we get addicted to plastic
  • What is the problem with plastic
  • How is plastic impacting the environment 
  • Tips on how to limit our plastic waste

WHAT IS PLASTIC

A plastic is any material that can be shaped or molded into any form -- some are naturally occurring, but most are man-made. The 'plastic' comes from the Greek verb plassein, which means "to mold or shape."

Man-made plastics are made from oil and fossil fuels. Many of the same companies that produce oil and gas also produce plastic, often in the same facilities.  

Oil is a carbon-rich raw material, and at a fundamental level plastics are made up of extremely long repetitive carbon-containing molecules called polymers composed of repeating units of shorter carbon-containing compounds called monomers

If you want to nerd out check out the common types of plastic polymers below:

WHY ARE WE ADDICTED TO PLASTIC? 

Our addiction to modern, synthetic plastic started in the middle of World War II. Plastic became critical during World War II as the enormous demands of war created shortages of natural materials and plastic became a perfect replacement since it could be molded into an almost infinite variety of shapes. Further, plastic is chemically inert and will not react chemically with other substances and it was great material for storing a variety of goods and products. During World War II plastic production in the United States increased by 300%.

The use of plastic freed the world from the limitations of the natural world and material constraints. We finally developed a versatile material that could be cheaply shaped into a variety of shapes for a variety of uses. 

After the war the economy was strong and consumer culture started to thrive.

According to historian Jeffrey Meikle, author of American Plastic: A Cultural History the ever-expanding proliferation of consumer goods post-WWII created an inflationary culture, and that plastic became the material of choice for this never-ending expansion. Plastic was already being manufactured at an extremely low cost and the applications for plastic in everyday life were abundant just as they were during wartime.

“In product after product, market after market, plastics challenged traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture.”

- Susan Freinkel, author of Plastics: A Toxic Love Story

There was little thought towards the long-term environmental consequences of widespread plastic use by companies and consumers.

At the time plastic seemed to democratize many products to a growing American middle class. Plastic almost provided a utopian vision of a future with abundancy since it was an inexpensive, safe, sanitary substance that could be molded in seemingly an infinite number of ways. 

New plastic products came onto the market which was designed to be disposable, thrown away after one use: plastic cups, plastic cutlery, plastic straws, and plastic bags. However, consumers were used to using these products over and over again, so it required some clever marketing to convince consumers to use single-use plastics

This Life Magazine article of August 1, 1955 “Throwaway Living,” that celebrates the use of single-use items brought in part because of disposable plastics.

“The objects flying through the air in this picture would take 40 hours to clean — except that no housewife need to bother.”

- Life Magazine

These companies clearly made a persuasive case since plastic production increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015 -- production nearly doubling every decade. 

We've become addicted to plastic and our addiction is getting worse. 

Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years and production is expected to double by 2050.

Plastic can be found in every part of our lives from the moment we wake up and brush our teeth, to the shoes and clothes we put on before we head to work, and the bags we use to carry anything that we purchase. 

Our addiction to plastic runs deep

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH PLASTIC?

The problem with plastic is that it typically takes more than 400 years to degrade and as it degrades it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces turning into what is commonly called “microplastic”.  

The material that we use for products designed for one-time use, ironically, takes forever to go away.

Literally, every single piece of plastic we have made is still with us. 

Source: the balance

This means that the plastic bottles that we throw out will likely be around longer than our children, our children’s children, and our children’s children’s children. You get the point. 

Plastic itself is a useful product, however, the way we USE plastic is the problem. Many plastic products are created for single-use - with an estimated 50 percent of plastic used once and thrown away

The other problem with plastic is that we do not do a good job of recycling plastic and there is not enough infrastructure to properly recycle plastic. As a consequence, only 9 percent of plastic is recycled and that means the vast majority of plastic waste has simply been dumped in landfills or burned.

HOW IS PLASTIC IMPACTING THE ENVIRONMENT? 

If we continue to use plastic in everything, plastic waste will pile up across the Earth. Plastic trash has already been found in surprising places such as: 

  • Mountain Everest 
  • the Arctic
  • Living organisms such as sea birds, whales, and even humans 
  • the deep ocean (the part of the ocean that is so deep that sunlight does cannot even reach it!)
“And the more we work on [plastic pollution], the more we are learning that it's not a middle-of-the-ocean problem. It's a water body problem. It's a terrestrial problem, it's an air problem, it's a tropical problem, it's an Arctic problem,” she says.

-- Jennifer Provencher, Canadian Wildlife Service

Although our plastic waste harms every part of our environment you may have seen on the news some of that plastic is literally and figuratively choking the ocean and its wildlife. Every year, an average of eight million tons of plastic waste, most of it single-use varieties, flows into the world’s oceans from coastal regions.

Marine biologists suggest plastic trash poses the single greatest threat to large marine animals, especially turtles, birds, and mammals. Animals can get tangled into the plastic and lose appendages or drown or some animals consume the plastic and die of intestinal blockage. 

Some marine species have been found to contain large proportions of plastics in their stomachs

Source: New York Times: A dead Whale found with 220 of trash in its stomach such as plastic bags and cups

Sometimes marine mammals are entangled in plastic products such as nets, which can harm or kill them.

Source: National Wildlife Federation 

Plastic trash is found in the guts of more than 90% of the world’s sea birds, in the stomachs of more than half of the world’s sea turtles

Source: National Public Radio

Even wild corals are feeding on tiny shreds of plastic trash and they seem to prefer the microplastics over their normal food even though they have no nutritional value.  

Since fish are consuming our plastic garbage, plastics are also accumulating up the food chain, and studies now show that we are likely ingesting it ourselves in seafood.

At the rate at which plastic is accumulating in the oceans of the planet, it’s predicted that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans will than fish.

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT PLASTIC?

All the uproar around plastics caused politicians and governments to act. The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to ban single-use plastics by 2021 and Canada has taken on a similar initiative. In the United States, California, New York, and hundreds of municipalities in the U.S. ban or fine the use of plastic in some way.

There are several things we can do in our own lives to reduce the amount of plastic waste that infiltrates landfills and the environment. 

1. Limit the use of single-use plastics

    The ocean conservancy lists cutlery as among the most deadly to sea turtles, birds, and mammals. We offer several products that are perfect plastic replacements for single-use plastics. Check out plastic-free essentials:

     Bamboo Cutlery Bamboo Toothbrush Metal Drinking Straw Bamboo Straw
    Hydroflask Sports Waterbottle Drawstring Bags Beeswax Wrap


    2. Recycle all recyclable plastics such as water bottles

       The vast majority of plastic is not recycled. The simplest way to limit plastic trash is by recycling the plastics we use so that they can be reused

      3. Lobby our local and federal elected officials to improve waste management systems and promote the circular use of plastic 

        Your voice matters. I know everyone says that, but local and federal governments in countries across the world are taking action against plastic in no small part due to citizens educating their local officials on the consequences of our reckless use of plastic and demanding action. 

        FURTHER READING & RESOURCES

        If you are interested in learning more here are some great resources we have come across. 

        Read:

        Watch:

        National Geographic: Plastics 101

        In a Nutshell: How Humans are Turning the World into Plastic

        PBS News Hour (Documentary): The Plastic Problem

         

        Leave a comment

        Please note, comments must be approved before they are published