Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time: 4 Ways We Ruined Plastics
Since the 1950s, the plastics industry has produced over 8.3 billion tons of plastic. Let's put that into perspective, shall we? Think of how big the Great Pyramid of Giza is. Now imagine there are 4076 of them. That's how much plastic we've made in the past seventy years. 1657 of those pyramids represent just what we've cranked out in the past ten years alone. 3057 of them have ended up as waste, only 367 have been recycled, and it is believed that humans unwittingly ingest one of those pyramids each year. Oh, and as an extra F-you to the planet, we're gonna throw four pyramids into the ocean and set another 489 of them on fire.
So, how did we end up with so much of this stuff, are recycling efforts gonna be enough, and just how screwed are we? Let's take a look …
The First Plastic
The history of plastics dates back to the 1860s, when the very first man-made plastic, celluloid, was created for the same reason as every other form of plastic: A demand for a cheaper alternative to existing material. In the case of celluloid, there was fear of an ivory shortage. Apparently, elephants weren’t mating fast enough to keep up with the demand for their tusks, and all of the products made from ivory were quickly becoming too cost prohibitive.
In 1863, after a $10,000 prize was offered for a synthetic ivory substitute for manufacturing billiard balls, American inventor John Wesley Hyatt accepted the challenge. Over the next six years, he discovered a process of combining cellulose nitrate with camphor and invented celluloid. And just like that, the billiards industry was saved, demand for ivory went down, and wild elephants were given a temporary reprieve from extinction.
Celluloid was also important because, in 1889, it was found to be extremely useful in making photographic film stock, allowing for cameras to take pictures on rolls of film instead of individual metal or glass plates. This innovation then paved the way for motion pictures to be invented. And without movies, a lot of Cracked writers would run out of article ideas even faster than the rage goblins in the comment section think we do already.
While celluloid may have single-handedly birthed the entire motion picture industry, the cellulose nitrate inside of it made it prone to self-ignite around 300°F … not exactly ideal when it’s routinely being whizzed past the searing hot light bulb inside a film projector.
This danger left Hollywood clamoring for safer film stock, and that came in 1948 with the invention of cellulose triacetate film. But after a while, they noticed this new “safety film” had its fair share of drawbacks, like its tendency to quickly degrade (and sweat vinegar) if it wasn’t stored properly. That led to the use of polyester film stock that was way stronger.
A little too strong, in fact. While it didn’t have the flammability or disintegration issues of its predecessors, polyester film stock wasn’t nearly as flexible. This led to jamming problems inside the cameras. But it worked great in projectors, though. So, the compromise ended being that safety film was used primarily to shoot the movies, then transferred over to polyester stock for film prints. This has pretty much been the standard for film stock ever since, although the new plastic of choice in Hollywood seems to be the polycarbonate circuit boards of digital cameras. We totally wanted to make a silicone chip/breast implant joke here, but it turns out that’s technically more of a rubber than a plastic.
The Plastics Boom of the 1950’s
Although many of the plastic polymers we use today were discovered before World War II broke out, the war effort’s heavy demand and tight rationing on metal, wood, and rubber caused a high demand for alternatives. Plastics manufacturers like DuPont had already tried to find commercial uses for their polymers before the war to some success, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the military came knocking. Nylon went from the hottest new trend in women’s stockings to being used for parachutes almost overnight.
The war didn’t just give the plastics industry a chance to help win the war, it provided them a nearly unlimited budget for research and development, all on the taxpayers’ dime. Every new innovation they created for the war effort was a proof of concept for products they could market to consumers after the war.
Once World War II had ended, it did take a few years for plastics to really take off, though. Now that ration orders were lifted and the free market was restored, consumers were desperate to finally replace their old cars and appliances. Over the next few years, demand for metal rose… along with prices. This in turn, triggered a demand for cheaper materials. Where did that bring us? Right back to plastics.
Post-war America was so full of optimism for the future that they wanted to live there as soon as possible, and plastics were advertised to deliver on the promise. You could now live in the home of the future with Formica countertops, vinyl siding, and Naugahyde furniture. You could drive cars with fiberglass fenders and acrylic windshields. You could keep your food fresh longer with Tupperware and Saran Wrap. This stuff was so cheap and readily available that if anything broke, you could afford to just throw it away! What could possibly go wrong?
Anti-Littering Campaigns and Recycling Efforts
It did not take long for the garbage to start piling up. Not just in landfills but everywhere. Littering had become a huge problem, and by the late 1950s, a media campaign called Keep America Beautiful had managed to bring widespread attention to the littering problem. Thanks to their efforts, states started passing anti-littering laws and enacting recycling programs. However, they never pushed to restrict the corporations from making such wasteful packaging products in the first place. That’s curious…
Oh, that’s because Keep America Beautiful was founded by those corporations. The American Can Company, Owens-Illinois Glass, Coca-Cola, Dixie Cup Company, the U.S. Brewers Foundation, etc. all sponsored KAB as a greenwashed smokescreen to keep the blame for all of this garbage squarely on the consumer instead of themselves. After all, it wasn’t their responsibility to figure out ways to reduce, reuse, or recycle the stuff they produced. Instead, they could just throw some sponsorship money towards Earth Day and put out the occasional litterbug-shaming PSA like the famous one of a (not) Native American man shedding a single tear beside a trash-strewn highway.
The first plastic waste recycling plant wasn’t built until 1972, and public awareness campaigns and municipal recycling programs, and mandates have made great strides in getting the public on board since then. By 1980, an estimated 20,000 tons of plastic had been recycled in the United States alone. By 2018, that total was over 3 million tons. That’s just 8.6% of the total amount of all the plastic we’ve produced in that time. Worldwide, only about 9% of plastic has been recycled. That may sound kind of bleak, but that’s not too bad considering that only 14% of the plastic we produce can actually be recycled.
But as with any crisis, the world is constantly trying to find a way to science the crap out of the plastics problem. Scientists in Japan have been working on bacteria that decompose plastic. Using waste plastic to create asphalt has been showing interesting results, as has trying to figure out ways to convert plastics back into the petroleum they were initially made of.
Back on the recycling front, there is plenty of public support for increased recycling efforts, but unfortunately, there’s not often enough funding to build more recycling facilities. Huge corporations have largely avoided footing the bill for such efforts, but some laws have aimed to change that.
Oregon recently passed a law that would require packaging manufacturers to pay for up to 28% of the state's recycling efforts, and Maine went a step further to charge these companies 100% of the cost. Nationally, there has been a bill introduced to Congress that aims to phase out single-use plastics and make packaging manufacturers fiscally responsible for their disposal. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA? That’s the best acronym they could come up with?) has been lingering in committee for over two years now and is more than likely gonna be voted on by a bunch of career politicians who have been receiving campaign donations from the plastics industry for years. So, don’t hold your breath.
We’ve all been told that the problem with plastic is that it does not degrade when dumped into the environment. That is not entirely true. For one, and not to be pedantic, all plastic will eventually biodegrade … it’ll just take 400-1,000 years for that to happen. For another, there are many biodegradable forms of plastic out there that will break down into organic material, but there is a catch.
Some plastics will biodegrade when left in water or soil, but that may not happen if they’re buried under tons of non-biodegradable trash in a landfill. There are some plastics that can be broken down into compost… under specific conditions and only at an industrial or commercial composting facility. Again, it doesn’t do the environment a damn bit of good when that stuff ends up in a landfill.
Even when you see a bio-based plastic labeled as being made from plants, you might think that means it’s biodegradable, but it’s not. It only means it was made without using petroleum, but the plant-based compound they used instead is nearly identical to it. They only did the environment a tiny favor in the manufacturing process. When it’s disposed of, it’s just as bad for the environment as its petroleum-based counterparts, further complicated by the fact that many bio-based plastics cannot be recycled together with petroleum plastics.
The biggest problem we face now is actually microplastics and nanoplastics. Plastic may not break down, but it does wear down. Every time you wear or wash clothes made of a synthetic material like nylon or polyester, or microwave leftovers in a plastic container, or leave any piece of plastic out in the elements, particles will flake off and find their way into the ecosystem. It also doesn’t help that plastic microbeads were used as an abrasive agent in personal care products like face scrubs, soap, and toothpaste for way longer than they reasonably should have. Those tiny pieces of plastic find their way into our waterways, into our air, they end up being ingested by animals, and that plastic goes right up the food chain.
How much plastic are you consuming? According to some studies, about one 2x4 Lego brick every week. The good news is they determined this amount by analyzing stool samples, so that means most of the plastic they found was passing through the human body. The bad news is, they’ve also started finding microplastics in human blood samples as well.
So, what health problems will plastic particles have on our bodies? We just don’t know yet. These blood studies were just from the past year, and scientific studies have historically had a hard time getting funded when they find that the culprits may be a major industrial sector. Hell, it took 74 years to finally get Big Oil to remove lead from gasoline. It took 89 years just to get a warning label on cigarettes. Medical problems caused by asbestos were first being noticed in 1899, and that stuff is still not fully banned in the United States. It’s gonna be a long road ahead.
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter, and he thanks you for your time.
Top image: Chiayapruek Youprasert/Shutterstock