Plastic, a blessing or a curse?

Plastic, a blessing or a curse?

Whether you like it or not, plastic is everywhere! It comes wrapped around your veggies in the supermarket, makes up the bus seats and the Barbies and Lego you loved (or love) to play with. We hear around us that plastic is bad, but why? We’d like to take you into the benefits and harms of plastic, to answer the question: a blessing or a curse?

 

What is the history?

Actually, plastic is not more than lots of long molecules called polymers. Polymers are not just man made, as they also grow in plants and trees as cellulose. It is exactly this cellulose that made up the first forms of plastic, when several scientists found out how to mould it into all kinds of shapes. One of them, John Wesley Hyatt, even received a 10.000 USD reward for its plastic substitution for ivory in billiard balls. So in a way, we can thank him for not letting elephants get extinct.

 

It was not until 1907 that plastic was first made out of coal to create Bakelite and in the 1930s these synthetic plastics became very popular. The use of plastic kept on growing during the Second World War, as it replaced other scare natural materials in weapons or vehicles. But, these new synthetic plastics were made out of fossil fuels.

 

Bakelite telephone from early 20th century
Bakelite telephone from early 20th century (Science Museum, London)

 

After the war, plastic kept its popularity. And fair enough right? Everything you could wish for would be moulded into all shapes and colours. It was quite unbreakable and would not decompose, making it very durable. These days we even make medications and jumpers out of it (yes, that nice fleece one that keeps you warm!). And honestly, I don’t know how to live a 100% plastic-free life in this society.

 

As with many environmental issues, people knew about the bad effects of plastic decades ago. In the 1960s, plastic was already found in the oceans and marked as a problem. Really, that is more than 50 years ago! Over the years, plastics started filling up landslides as it takes a long time to break down. As a response, some recycling programs were launched. Unfortunately, the majority of plastic these days is not recycled. Also, worries about animal and human health have raised some questions. The truth is that we don’t even know the long-term effects of all this plastic in our environment. Pretty scary if you ask me.

 

What is happening now?

One very visible problem at the moment is the accumulation of plastic in the oceans, which happens in so-called garbage patches. The largest is the Great Pacific garbage patch, where approximately 80 million kg is found in 1.8 trillion pieces. As plastic does break down very slowly under the influence of sunlight and water, many pieces turned into very small fragments, called microplastics. A high amount of microplastics also ends up directly in the environment through the washing machine. Yes really, because a single piece of garment loses thousands of fibres of microplastic in the laundry. Also, make-up and other cosmetics contain microplastics and end up in our oceans after a shower.

 

They might be small, but these microplastics form a gigantic problem. As they are so small, they are hard to get out of the water once in. Also, their size makes it hard to spot them with the naked eye, so finding them is the first challenge. Many ocean animals eat these plastics in any form. For example some sea turtles, as they mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, that are on their diet. Unfortunately, many marine animals have already died from this diet, such as sea birds or sea turtles. And don’t forget that you also eat these plastics, whether this is through fish or mussels, or just by simply adding sea salt to your food.

Are there any solutions?

Luckily there are some great people out there that are doing everything they can to get the plastic out of the water. But it would be so much better to not get it in there in the first place. As you might have noticed, there is a lot to learn about plastics! That’s why we decided to split up the topic. Next time we’ll discuss possible solutions and give you some more tips on what you can do! For now, check out the tips below:

 

TIPS

–    It is quite an expense, I have to admit, but this Guppy Friend washing bag does help to catch 99% of all microplastics released from your laundry. Buy it at a local shop or on this website: http://guppyfriend.com/en/

–    Instead of going shopping, organize a clothing swap with friends. Also, great second-hand shops might be close to your house, ask around or ask Google. And when you go shopping, check the labels to see if the ingredients are of natural origin such as (organic) cotton and try to avoid plastic clothes.

 

Want to know more? There is a very clear 4 minute TED-Ed clip that also explains the concept of garbage patch. Very worth to watch!

Sources can be found on our sources page!

 

Head image: Troy Mayne, WWF

 



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