THE RISE AND FALL OF PLASTIC
Less than 150 years ago, nothing was made of plastic.
Back then, everything we had was derived from natural resources or produced from inorganic materials such as metals and glass. Ironically, in the late 1800s, there was a push to find materials that could replace the use of precious commodities such as ivory and tortoise shell. These materials were not only expensive but also concerned people about the rate at which these animals were being killed, as so many items relied on them as a resource.
By 1863 a serious ivory shortage threatened the success of a New York billiard ball manufacturer, who offered $10,000 to whoever could create a viable alternative. Inspired by the prize money, John Wesley Hyatt combined cotton cellulose with camphor creating Celluloid, a unique material that could be softened and moulded into a multitude of products and was marketed as an affordable solution to ivory, tortoise shell and horn. This invention was considered an environmental saviour.
The next breakthrough came from Leo Bakeland, who invented the first plastic to be made completely out of synthetic materials. Bakelite intended to replicate shellac, a natural electrical insulation material derived from the lac bug who secretes ‘stick-lac’ onto bark (which is then scraped off and processed into liquid shellac). The quantity of stick-lac produced by the lac bug could not keep up with the demand of shellac needed for the US electrical boom, and soon Bakelite became ‘the material of a thousand uses’ as stated by Bakeland himself.
This material was tough and could be shaped into almost anything. Unlike other plastics on the market at the time, it was also heat resistant. Additionally, Bakelite was perfect for mechanical production and could easily be produced on a large scale.
This was the beginning of the plastic revolution. Soon, countless new 100% synthetic plastics were produced by competitors. Plastics became a versatile, cheaper, sturdier alternative to natural materials and arguably raised standards of living by giving people access to items that were previously too expensive.
During World War 2, the production of plastic rose 300% as plastic items appeared to be trendy and glamourous. Innovative ways to use plastic kept appearing - in jewellery, building materials, clothing and household items. Plastic also held a key role in many major engineering, technological and medical advancements such as the development of the plastic syringe in the 1950s.
As the excitement for plastic products slowly deteriorated, a shift in the way people viewed plastic occurred. By the 1960s, plastic had lost its glamour and was considered cheap and flimsy. Despite this, the production of plastic did not slow down. The accumulation of plastic products was starting to make an impact, especially single use items that were being discarded into the environment.
Fast forward to 2018 and plastic is going through another revolution. We are now more conscious of the impacts of plastic than ever before and are going to great lengths to limit our consumption. We are all aware of the negative impacts of plastic, both on us (through the leeching of toxic chemicals and consumption of microplastic) and on the environment. Devastating photos of garbage islands and dead sea life with stomachs full of plastic regularly circle the internet and it would be hard to believe that there is anyone in the developed world who remains unaware of plastic’s negative impacts.
Even though we remain heavily reliable on plastic, we are successfully distancing ourselves from single use items. Even many developing countries, such as Ethiopia, have banned plastic bags and are shifting towards reusable and recyclable products. There is now a push for people to invent alternatives to plastic which are more environmentally friendly, and one of these is bioplastic, which completely breaks down in composts. There are also now plastics made from natural by-products such as prawn shells.
On top of this, people are getting creative with ways to reuse the plastic we already have, particularly in developing countries (unfortunately, many of these countries have no means of simply sending things to be recycled). On a household scale, there is an alternative for virtually all uses of plastics with many people now choosing to go ‘waste free.’
Plastic Free July is not only a time to be committed to reducing your plastic waste, it is also a time to celebrate the global awareness of plastics in the environment and the amount of research and resources we have put towards its reduction. Things will only go forward from here and although we still have much to improve, it really is amazing how much we have already achieved.
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