Today plastic is everywhere and in everything: not only all products are made of and wrapped in plastic, but there are micro plastics in the food and water we consume everyday. Plastic pollution has reached its peak and has led humanity to an environmental crisis.
Plastics are a range of synthetic materials, containing polymers as a main ingredient. The term plastic is derived from the Greek word plastikos, meaning fit for molding. They are extremely versatile materials, which makes them ideal for a very wide range of uses; they are also light, durable and very inexpensive to produce, which is the reason they are so widely spread all over the world.
But how did the plastic nightmare begin? Well, funnily enough it all started with... the billiard ball.
1863 - The billiard ball and celluloid
In the past all billiard balls were made of ivory, which was not only a very expensive material, but the constant market for it led to a huge decline in the elephant population. This is why in the early 1860s there was a need for a material which could replace ivory.
In 1863 the American manufacturer John Wesley Hyatt started working on an alternative and this is when he invented celluloid. Celluloid was the first plastic to ever be produced, however it wasn't heavy or bouncy enough for the purpose it was created for and it was flammable, which made production risky.
1898 - Invention of Polyethylene
Polyethylene was first synthesized in 1898 by the German chemist Hans von Pechmann, who actually invented it by accident! It wasn't until 1933 however, that the first industrially practical polyethylene was synthesized in Northwich, England. Commercial production began in 1939 and was first used during World War II as an insulator for radar cables. Polyethylene is the most widely spread common plastic today. It is mainly used for packaging and for the production of containers and bottles.
1907 - The invention of plastic
The first fully synthetic plastic was invented in 1907 in New York by Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland. This plastic called Bakelite, didn't contain any molecules found in nature and was a revolutionary invention for its electrical nonproductivity and its heat-resistant qualities. Bakelite could be molded very quickly, which significantly reduced production times and was heat and scratch resistant.
These qualities made it very suitable for the fast growing electrical and automobile industries.
Since Bakelite could be molded into almost anything, it was known as "the material of a thousand uses" and quickly became very popular.
1938 - Commercial use of nylon
Nylon was first synthesized in1935 by the American chemist Wallace Hume Carothers and by 1938 the first nylon-bristled toothbrush was created, followed by the creation of women's nylon stockings in 1939. Nylon stockings were such a success that 64 million pairs were sold during their first year on the market!
1965 - The plastic bag
The polyethylene shopping bag was patented in 1965 by the Swedish company Celloplast as an alternative to paper bags, which were considered bad for the environment because their production was leading to deforestation. The logic behind it was that since plastic bags were stronger, they could be reused multiple times. They quickly became popular in Europe, then in 1979 plastic bags were introduced to the United States and by the mid 80s they had spread across the whole world.
1970s - Recycling plastic
Plastic recycling started in the 1970s as a response to the ever growing amount of plastic waste. A lot of big companies and petrochemical industrial leaders quickly realized that most plastic can not be recycled, however sharing this information to the public would have costed them big financial losses. So instead they invested in massive campaigns, convincing people that plastic can be recycled, which made people feel good about purchasing plastic products.
1997 - Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean, which was discovered in 1997 by the sailor and researcher Charles Moore. It consists of plastic and floating trash originating from the Pacific Rim ( the lands around the Pacific Ocean). It is considered that the patch covers 1.6 million square kilometers, which is roughly three times the size of France and some of the rubbish inside it is over 50 years old. Unfortunately, the patch is rapidly growing and it is estimated that, as of right now, it contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 80 000 metric tons.
2002 - Bangladesh bans plastic bags
In 2002 Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban plastic bags when it was established that millions of bags blocked the drainage system during the devastating floods of 1989 and 1998, therefore prolonging the floodings. Countries like South Africa, Rwanda, China, Australia and Italy followed their lead. Even though more countries have placed some sort of restriction on plastic bags, today about 5 Trillion plastic bags are still used each year!
2018 - #BeatPlasticPollution
In 2018 #BeatPlasticPollution became the theme of World Environment Day. The UN launched a global campaign, a call to action for people to come together to combat the greatest environmental problem of our time. The UN urged people from all over the world to think about the changes they can make in their every day life to eliminate or at least reduce the amount of plastic waste they produce.
2021 - Where are we now?
Even though we have known for many years, the threat that plastic poses on Earth, very little has been done to reduce plastic pollution. There are now 5.25 trillion macro and micro pieces of plastic in our oceans (46,000 pieces in every square mile!) weighing up to 269,000 tons. Every day around 8 million pieces of plastic make their way into our oceans and it was estimated that there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by the year 2050.
Most plastic is used in the packaging industrial sector, followed by the building industry. However, plastic is used in almost every single industrial sector because it is cheap and easy to produce.
Probably the most frightening fact of all is that 50% of the plastic we use is single use. Let's not forget that plastic can take up to 1000 years before it fully degrades.
And even though some plastics can be recycled, that is often not the case: a lot of plastic products are very hard or impossible to recycle. Thermoset plastics, for example, contain polymers that form irreversible chemical bonds , which means they are impossible to recycle. Products made of mixed materials or mixed types of plastic also can't be recycled. However, if a certain plastic could be recycled, the same piece of plastic can only be recycled 2 to 3 times. These are some of the reasons why only 9% of all plastic is being recycled, which unfortunately means recycling is not the answer to plastic pollution. The only way to deal with the plastic crisis is for us to stop producing and using plastic altogether.