It wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that anything like plastic even existed. The manufacture of true plastics began in the early twentieth century and soon became a flood, as industry developed more and more different kinds of plastic. And almost all of it still exists in one form or another. Plastic is forever.
Chemically, plastics are enormous strings of molecules called polymers. Natural products degrade by various natural means. Plastics don’t exist in nature, and nature hasn’t figured out what to do with them. All it can do is tear plastics into smaller and smaller pieces, which remain the same unnatural substance.
Half a century ago, plastic seemed like a cheap and inferior substitute for natural materials. It didn’t get a lot of respect. Since then plastic has turned out to be a superior material for some things. There are ample reasons why personal computers, cell phones, and other modern gadgets have never been made from metal, glass, or wood!
Plastic bottles have all but replaced glass. They’re much lighter. They don’t break as easily. When they do, the pieces are larger and less dangerous to pick up than glass shards. Plastic grocery (etc.) bags are sturdier and easier to carry than paper.
Disposable plastic has become a huge problem. Every bit of it still exists. In a single year, Americans alone use enough plastic bags to circle the earth more than 750 times. We use tens of billions of plastic bottles. Those figures don’t begin to summarize all of the various kinds of packaging, pens, razors, and other disposable products that we buy and discard every year. The rest of the world adds to that total.
The everlasting menace of plastic waste
And it all still exists. A small fraction gets recycled. What happens to the rest of it?
When we properly dispose of plastic waste, some municipalities put their collected trash in landfills. Others incinerate it. Both methods have negative effects on the environment, but not nearly as bad as what happens when lazy lowlifes simply toss plastic trash out of their car windows or otherwise improperly dispose of it.
Much of that plastic eventually winds up in the ocean. It’s lightweight. It floats. It gets into streams, which flow downhill and eventually reach the sea. Not all plastic that gets into a stream makes it all the way to the ocean, but when it does, it gets caught up in ocean currents. A rotating current in the Pacific Ocean encircles a vast gyre, or vortex, at its center. And that gyre contains the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
By the time plastic reaches the gyre, natural forces have broken it into smaller pieces, which fish and birds eat, but can’t digest. At best, their digestive systems will leach out some of the chemicals from the plastic before it is eliminated from their bodies. Those chemicals enter the bloodstream, along with the nutrients the animals get from whatever real food they ate. By the way, Americans eat a lot of fish from the Pacific.At worst, the pieces of plastic are small enough for a bird or fish to swallow, but too large to pass through their bodies. They remain in the stomach, taking space. As the bird or fish ingests more and more plastic, eventually it has no capacity to receive or digest food, and it starves.
While not all waste plastic is accepted in municipal recycling programs, it is all, in fact recyclable. That is, any kind of waste plastic can be used to make some kind of new product. Regarding plastic, therefore, a green lifestyle requires that we
- Reduce our personal consumption of disposable plastic
- Participate fully in as many recycling collection programs as we can. (For example, grocery stores accept plastic bags for recycling that many municipalities refuse to collect)
- Purchase products made from recycled plastic in order to encourage demand for waste plastic as a resource.
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Plastic on a river bank: Some rights reserved by Horia Varlan
Albatross carcass with plastic: Some rights reserved by Sea Studios Foundation