Which bag should you use? - Luka Seamus Wright and Imogen Ellen Napper
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Plastic was first invented by the Belgian New Yorker Leo Hendrick Baekeland in 1907. Since then, this group of synthetic polymers has revolutionised human life. As its Greek name plastikós (πλᾰστῐκός) suggests, it is incredibly versatile and can be moulded into any shape or size. Moreover, it is heat resistant and insoluble. These features are captured by Baekeland’s choice of using the infinity symbol and slogan “The Material of a Thousand Uses” to sell his invention, which he called bakelite. For example, bakelite was used to build anything from telephones and radios to billiard balls. Plastics – high-density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyester and polyvinyl chloride just to name a few – have subsequently become the dominant material used by humans.
Today, we are faced with the consequences of this brilliant invention. Because of their low cost, plastics were soon mainly used for single-use applications and, despite their durability, have become a symbol for single-use consumerism. A material that was intended to last for years is predominantly used in minutes! Because of their enormous production, waste and persistence, plastics are now considered a pollutant of global significance. Faced with negative media attention and subsequent consumer pressure, many companies have tried to overcome the durability of single-use plastics by marketing so-called biodegradable versions of the material. However, recent research has shown that plastic bags labelled as biodegradable did not degrade faster than conventional carrier bags. After three years in the ocean, these bags could still hold the weight of typical groceries! In fact, industrial composting facilities would typically be necessary to achieve complete degradation of such plastics. These facilities have conditions that are unlikely to be found in the natural environment, such as high temperatures of around 70°C.
Now you are probably asking “Can there be an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic?”. There is no easy answer. Such a material would need to decompose fast enough, not to cause any damage by entangling animals. Furthermore, it would have to completely degrade into its most basic constituents, rather than producing persistent fragments that are frequently ingested by animals. Finally, it would have to be safe for human use and not harm other lifeforms, even when accidentally ingested. All these requirements are necessary in addition to plastic’s current advantages, such as increasing the shelf life of food and improving global healthcare. While producing such a super-material may seem impossible now, keep in mind that nobody believed it was possible to produce fully synthetic plastics before Leo Baekeland’s pioneering work. However, is this really the right way forward? Baekeland’s objective was to create an exceedingly strong material that could take any shape or size. Having invented a material of almost unmatched durability, why would we waste it in such a careless way? We need to remember humanity’s fascination with plastics before they were everyday reality. Where possible, reverting to a mindset of valuing durability will be key for the future persistence of life on Earth.
The sources and sinks of plastic
The sources of plastic are many. Humans directly throw away plastic, which subsequently ends up in landfills or the ocean. However, some of plastic’s journeys are less obvious. For instance, over 700 000 tiny plastic fibres are released from our synthetic clothes during an average wash in the washing machine. Many cosmetics also contain plastic, with up to 94 500 microbeads washed down the drain during a single facial scrub. Once in the washing machine or flushed down the sink, there are no filters that stop these microplastics from entering the ocean. Once at sea, plastic can travel long distances and reach remote places, such as the Mariana Trench. Another everyday activity that contributes to the emission of plastic is driving a car, because tires leave behind trails of plastic through abrasion. Some plastic doesn’t even need to travel to find its way to the sea: fishing gear is a major source of plastic pollution that entangles various marine life. Considering that these sources of plastic were only recently described, there are probably countless other sources of plastic pollution which still remain to be discovered.
Other interesting videos on plastic
Kurzgesagt | Plastic pollution: how humans are turning the world into plastic
National Geographic | Plastics 101
TED-Ed | The nurdles' quest for ocean domination
TED-Ed | What really happens to the plastic you throw away
University of Plymouth | International Marine Litter Research Unit
UN Environment Programme | Beat Plastic Pollution
National Geographic | Planet or Plastic?
National Geographic | Plastic: Sea to Source
MDPI Sustainability | Plastic
Carbon Footprint | Plastic Waste
Frontiers in Marine Science | Plastic Pollution
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