The Origins of Plastic: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Truth
Did you know the world has produced 381 million tons of plastic waste to date?
That’s 762 billion pounds and is expected to double to over 1.5 trillion (with a T) pounds by 2034.
To put that number into perspective, picture The Great Wall of China which weighs 118 billion pounds. The amount of plastic waste on Earth today is equal to over six Great Walls of China.
When did planet Earth become such a dumpster for plastic and how did it come to this? Don’t worry, it’s not all bad. Let’s dive into the history of plastic and how it came to be so pervasive in our society.
What Is Plastic Made Of?
A plastic is basically a collection of human-made or naturally occurring materials known as polymers that can be combined and molded into any shape, size, or design.
Examples of naturally occurring plastics are tortoise shells, ivory tusks, cellulose, and shellac. Cellulose is a wood-based bioplastic made from trees. Shellac is a resin made by the female lac bug, found on trees in the forests of Thailand and India.
Pretty cool, right?
The word polymer comes from two Greek words: poly, meaning many, and meros, meaning parts or units. A polymer can be thought of as a chain with thousands of units in which each unit is a single link in the chain. For any nutrition or physiology nerds, think about proteins and fats being made up of chains of amino acids and fatty acids.
When Was Plastic Invented?
In the 19th century, cellulose and latex (forms of natural polymers) were chemically changed to form celluloid and vulcanized rubber. Vulcanized rubber is still used to create all sorts of things from the soles of shoes, to tires, to bouncing balls.
In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented the first human-made plastic. This version 1.0 of artificial plastic was coined Bake-Lite and worked well for installing electrical lighting in homes. It was versatile and cost effective, which earned it the nickname “the material with a thousand uses” (Science History).
Over the last century, plastic has played a major role in the advancement of modern society. The production of synthetic polymers to create plastic products is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States and the world.
Plastic has been so helpful, versatile, and convenient, many people have consciously or unconsciously disregarded the downsides, even at the potential cost of the quality of life for other living beings and our future generations of children.
Here's a quick rundown on some facts about plastic that we found interesting and wanted to share with our community. The intention is merely to raise awareness and create discussion around this topic.
What Resources Are Needed To Make Plastic?
Large chains of polymers form plastics. These polymers are artificially made using crude oil as the main resource. Crude oil is harvested from the earth by drilling and fracking.
The negative impacts of oil pollution are well documented and devastating on the surrounding ecosystems. Plastic may be cheap in dollar bills to create in an oil refinery, but the cost to the plants, animals, and water supply is unrepairable.
How Long Does Plastic Last In The Environment?
One major downside to plastic is the shelf-life. A plastic grocery bag is estimated to last 10 to 20 years, and a typical plastic water bottle is estimated to last for up to 400 or 500 years.
There are different calculators available online that can give you an estimation of how long other plastic products like these ones will last. Regardless of the accuracy, we found the numbers to be significantly larger than we anticipated.
Plastic does not decompose well, which just means it lasts for a very long time in the environment before breaking down into smaller parts (microplastics), which further disturb the environment by polluting the water and soil. Part 3 of this plastic series will discuss the health impacts that plastic and microplastics have on human, animal, and marine life.
Why Does It Matter?
JERF Life is a proponent of the seventh generation principle of the Iroquois tribe which states that decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world 500 years from now. We want to be a part of the conversation in helping people become more educated and empowered about how to live a conscious, sustainable, healthy life.
Total plastic waste is expected to double by 2034 which means all of these unaddressed problems will double in severity as well. The current generation may only see a glimpse of the devastation that could be passed down to the several generations of our children who would be forced to deal with our mess because we were not capable enough to handle it ourselves.
Our intention is to bring light to the fact that plastic is not the enemy here. Plastic is a tool that we humans must learn how to use more responsibly if we desire to maintain our health and the health of the environment.
Minimizing your carbon footprint and your plastic waste is a long, continuous journey. The point isn't to go to war with plastic and try to completely eliminate it from your life.
All you need is a foundation of knowledge on the subject, a desire to improve, and consistent effort to guide you on your journey of living a more sustainable and mindful life.
Future articles in this plastic series will teach you a variety of ways you can minimize your plastic waste and carbon footprint with simple buy swaps, eco friendly tips, and DIY tutorials, so stay tuned if you really want to get serious about living a more environmentally conscious life.
In part 2 of this series, we’ll discuss the pros, cons, and details for each of the seven major types of plastic so you can make more informed decisions when shopping and recycling.
Thanks for sharing this with your friends and family interested in the conversation of plastic waste, conscious living, and what we can do to minimize our impact on the environment as producers and consumers.
Join us in the conversation of how we can make the world a greener place over on Facebook and Instagram @jerf_life_
Resources for further reading:
- “The History and Future of Plastics”, Retrieved from https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics