• Kate Tyshchenko

Plastic: why something used only for a moment lasts centuries?

Few lines on the history

The history of plastic goes back to 1869 - when it was invented by John Wesley Hyatt. Hyatt was driven by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 to find the cheapest substitute for ivory. The problem was - the growing demand for billiards resulted in shortages of natural ivory, which was obtained through the slaughter of wild elephants. Hyatt, by treating cellulose, discovered plastic. The material which could be shaped into a variety of forms and made to imitate natural substances like ivory and bone. In fact, the word plastic originally meant “pliable and easily shaped.” At the time everyone praised plastic as the savior of the elephants. Humans were not limited by wood, metal, stone or bone anymore - we could now create completely new materials! The plastic revolution was started...

Since the 1950s, the plastic production has outpaced almost every other material. And it simply skyrocketed in 1990s. In one decade we produced more plastic than throughout our entire history.

And majority of the plastic that we manufacture is designed to be used only once (so-called "single-use plastic").

So what is the problem with plastic then?

As we might remember from high-school physics - plastics are derived from propylene, a simple chemical component of petroleum. When heated up, however, individual chemical units of propylene link together and form extremely strong bonds (these are called polypropylene). As explained by Kenneth Peters, an organic chemist from Stanford University "Nature doesn't make things like that, so organisms have never seen that before." Thus the bacteria which are evolved to decompose organic matter just do not know how to break down polypropylene. Plastic items might take up to 1000 years to decompose in landfills! But really, who knows? - in 1000 years there might be no one around to check.

Our attraction to plastic combined with its expensiveness resulted in one of the biggest problems of the 21st century and possibly even of the entire human history. According to NCEAS ( National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis ) every year 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the oceans. It is equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world!

But aside from being washed out on our coastlines and being unpleasant to look at, plastics are lethal to many living creatures: from whales, dolphins, sea lions, and birds to turtles and fish. Red, pink, blue and yellow pieces of plastic remind them food...

Is there a solution?

50% of plastic is so-called single-use – it is utilized for just a few minutes, but stays on our planet for hundreds of years. So all plastic knives and forks we use for our business lunches, disposable coffee cups for our 15-minute breaks will end up in landfills. And while recycling might seem like a possible solution, here is a problem - plastic can only be recycled once or twice - after that it's recyclable potential is over.

A great way to overcome this - is to completely stop using single-use plastic.

Here are a small steps each one of us can start taking. Today. Tomorrow. Next week.

  • Bring your own water bottle with you and drink tap water (if your area allows that). One million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and this needs to change.

  • Buy a reusable coffee mug. No more disposable coffee cups with plastic lids! And no - Starbucks cups are not always recycled. In fact 4 billion disposable Starbucks coffee cups end up in landfills each year.

  • Get a reusable shopping bag - and never say yes to "Do you need a bag" question.

  • Stop using plastic cutlery. There are great reusable substitutes which you can just throw into your bag.

  • Try to buy less products which use plastic packaging. Good example is beauty industry - a lot of good quality products use glass instead of plastic as a packaging. Glass can be easily recycled back into sand by simply heating it up.


©2019 by The Good Cup Project.