PLASTIC A CAUTIONARY TALE
08 Jul 2022

It’s Plastic Free July! And its an exceptionally important topic in 2022 and will continue to be for many years to come.

It’s very easy to say that we should all go “plastic-free” but in reality is this possible? Is it even preferable? We take a look into the many ways plastic is a disaster, but also many ways it can create benefit when used correctly.

 

A LITTLE PLASTIC HISTORY:

Plastic was invented by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland, he pioneered the first fully synthetic plastic in 1907. He branded his product “Bakelite” and it would be used to make telephones, radios, and many new household technologies.

Following this incredible innovation, petroleum and chemical industries joined forces and created companies such as Dow Chemicals, ExxonMobil, DuPont and BASF. These companies are still the major producers of raw material for the plastic industry today.

In 1932 Perspex was invented – a new clear and flexible plastic. Soon after plastic bags, nylon, Tupperware, and plastic medical prosthetics entered the market.

Fast forward 80 years - we now produce 500 billion single-use plastic drinking bottles a year. Things have escalated fast.

 

SOME POSITIVES OF PLASTIC:

With the invention of PET (the plastic which our water bottles are made of) came a huge wealth of opportunity – it was easier to sell pretty much anything. Plastic was lighter than glass, cheaper to produce, and pretty much unbreakable. And, surprisingly, this can actually have a positive environmental impact: the lighter something is the less fuel is required to move it, the less breakable something is the less wastage there is and therefore less resources needed.

In addition, plastic has been hugely beneficial in providing much needed aid around the world. It has supplied countries devastated by war, drought, and famine with clean water, food supplies, sanitised medical equipment and more.

 

THE PROBLEM OF PLASTIC:

However, the dark side of plastics casts an enormously large shadow: from microplastics, to phthalates, marine pollution to freshwater pollution, and even at the source- production pollution. The damage it has reeked is ubiquitous.

Let’s start with the smallest item and work our way up - phthalates, haven’t heard of them? You should, your body is most likely riddled with them.

Phthalates are used in everything from household cleaners to food packaging to fragrance, cosmetics to shampoo bottles to babies bottles and dummies. They are a “plasticizer” - they make hard plastics soft and malleable. The problem? We absorb them at an alarming rate and we don’t think our bodies can get rid of them, which means as soon as you were born you started absorbing them.

In the past few years, researchers have linked phthalates to asthma, ADHD, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioural issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues. They are a disaster and they are in nearly all your household plastics.

Next microplastics. You are probably much more aware of these – they have received a lot of news attention and public pressure caused the banning of “microbeads” in face washes etc.

Microplastics are defined as “plastic pieces that measure less than five millimetres across. Some microplastics have formed by breaking away from larger plastics that have fragmented over time”*.

The big problem with microplastics? Well, there’s a few – firstly they have been extremely hard, if not impossible, to capture and prevent from entering waterways and our ecosystems. Secondly, they are easily consumed by both humans and animals which can lead to poisoning and/or killing animals by filling their stomachs with undigestible bits of plastic.

The next problem with plastic is the one that is most apparent – large scale plastic pollution – we see it in our parks, on our streets, across our beaches and in our seas. It is everywhere. And the longer it is undealt with the more animals it will kill, the more it will breakdown into microplastics, the more it will be consumed by us and the natural world.

 

So, the reality is plastic is everywhere and it is a BIG problem. Are we likely to be able to see a future without plastics? No. But, there are things you can do and there are some inspiring solutions that are being invented to help. Here are a few:

 

INSPIRING INVENTIONS AND DISCOVERIES:

  • University students in Quebec have invented a machine that can remove microplastics from sand on beaches. It is bulky and time consuming but the first step in extracting these nasty plastic-parasites from the natural world.
  • Microbiologist Christian Rinke has discovered that Beetle Larvae can consume polystyrene and, once digested by its gut enzymes and excreted, convert it into a biodegradable material! (Just hope the larvae is okay…)
  • The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is shockingly twice the size of Texas (which is SIX times the size of the UK!). However, the incredible Ocean Clean Up organisation has already started tackling the problem with their amazing innovations to scoop up the debris and remove it from the marine environment

 

WAYS YOU CAN HELP SAVE THE WORLD FROM PLASTIC DISASTER:

Plastics only exist because we use them. The less we use, the less market there is for them, the less will be produced.

  • Switch to plastic free cleaning. We really don’t need Fairy Liquid plastic scrubbers pre-filled with liquid wash. Wooden scrubbers, loofahs and natural sponges all do an equally good job.
  • Try to buy loose fruit and veg – this is a simple swap and one you can do daily. Don’t pick the pre packaged stuff. Spend an extra 1 minute at the checkout to weigh your apples and broccoli.
  • Remember your “bags for life” when you shop. If you can, keep a “turtle” (string grocery bag) in your hand bag/ backpack with you at all times – these scrumple up into pretty much nothing but can hold an absolutely enormous amount.
  • Recycle ALL plastic you use. Keep the tops on bottles and don’t crumple them up – it makes it harder for the machine to sort them. Also clean them before you put them in the recycling – it makes it more likely they will be processed.

 

Try to make a change today.

And if you need some inspiration or even MORE motivation? Sign up to one of our challenges with plastic free companies Seep, Halo Coffee, or Lab Tonica – all available to start now on the SoCo app.

 

*extract from ClientEarth website

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