Plastics have taken the world by storm ever since their invention in 1869. They have made material wealth more easily accessible, provided practical solutions to shortages in natural resources through wars, and, astonishingly, were even hailed as being an environmentally friendly resource (as they could easily imitate things like ivory, horns and tortoiseshell). Nowadays, the consensus on plastic stands in cold contrast to that of the past, with many people consciously trying to reduce their use of plastics, through reusable bags, coffee cups and water bottles.
Plastics are a group of materials made up from long chains of polymers, formed from mainly carbon and hydrogen. Most are ‘synthetic’ plastics, derived from fossil fuels such as crude oil, gas, or coal. These are refined into polyethene and polypropene, which are then exposed to high heats in a process called ‘cracking’, turning them into monomers, like ethene and propene, which can then be combined to form the polymer building blocks of plastics. Their extreme malleability makes them easily adaptable to a variety of material needs.
For all the good that plastics have done for us through history, plastic and its production has caused multiple negative environmental impacts. For starters, the amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce plastics in the first place puts a strain on natural resources, combined with the difficulty of its decomposition makes plastic an inarguable nemesis of the natural environment. They take hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of years to decompose, clogging up landfills, oceans and green-spaces worldwide.
Plastic debris was first spotted in the ocean in the 1960s, sparking concerns about the longevity of the previously praised material. Slowly, plastics once glowing reputation began to dwindle, and almost a decade later, the plastic industry introduced modern-day recycling as a solution. However, they were so ingrained in everyday life, making many technological advances possible across computing, automotive engineering, and in the medical-world, that this did not serve its purpose of halting the build-up of plastic debris.
Nowadays, plastic in the ocean poses a serious threat to wildlife – everyday around 8 million pieces enter the ocean. This results in accumulations such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a pile of discarded rubbish roughly three times the size of France. Aquatic animals frequently get caught in, ingest, or become unwell due to the infiltration of plastic into their habitats. One whale, washed up in the Philippines in 2019, was found to have ingested over 40kg of plastic bags.
Reducing the amounts of single-use plastic, such as plastic bags, cutlery and take-away cups could significantly reduce the amounts that end up in the environment. Recent years saw the introduction to plastic bag charges, which led to a decrease in plastic bag use by 80%. Many food and drink retailers now offer money-off to encourage customers to bring reusable alternatives to plastic take-away cups. Zero-waste shops are also becoming more and more prevalent, allowing people to reduce personal contributions to plastic-waste through their regular shopping habits – although these shops are arguably more expensive and not readily accessible to lower socio-economic groups.
According to Greenpeace, the biggest contributor to plastic build-up in the oceans is debris from the fishing industry, as highlighted by the recent Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, which calls for viewers to dramatically reduce, or even fully eliminate seafood from their diet in an effort to stop plastic build-up in its tracks.
Scientists are also on the lookout for more environmentally friendly alternatives, through the development of biodegradable plastics, which are broken down more easily by the environment, thus having less of a negative impact on it. Recently, German researchers have managed to identify a new bacterium, Pseudomonas putida, which can biodegrade polystyrene. This research ‘represents an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle products’. If scientists successfully developed a plastic that’s easily biodegradable, yet still as versatile as conventional plastic, it would undoubtedly help unload the burden we have put on mother natures’ shoulders through our extensive plastic use.