Belfast Telegraph

Plastic was a fabulous invention that delivered so much, but it's now choking the planet

Growing problem: volunteers try to clear plastic from the sea
Growing problem: volunteers try to clear plastic from the sea

By Mary Kenny

So here's the new villain in our lives: plastic. Every time we pick up a takeaway coffee in its plastic container - and, even worse, with a plastic lid - we are contributing to the agonising death of marine life in the oceans. Whenever you purchase a bottle of water in its plastic container, you are adding your own little bit to the 8.3 billion tonnes of waste plastic floating around the globe, most of it accumulated in the past 15 years.

And look at the kitchen! It's enough to give David Attenborough clinical depression: that plastic squeezy bottle of washing-up liquid and the many other plastic containers of cleaning materials; the Tupperware in the cupboards; the cellophane, cling film and the garbage bags; the milk, butter, yoghurt, bacon in the fridge, all within container plastics.

It's said that much of this everyday plastic will last for between 450 years and for ever. "It cannot be thrown away," mourns Sir David. "It does not go away." Discarded plastic may eventually turn up in global litter-dump sites in poor countries like Bangladesh and the Philippines, or in the oceans, where it strangles the digestive tracts of aquatic creatures, including turtles and birds.

Fish are developing compromised livers from plastic debris. Oysters are ingesting tiny pieces of polystyrene. National Geographic Magazine reports that "hundreds of species" of freshwater and marine organisms are harmed by plastics. We are all guilty. We embraced an innovative product which promised so much - and has delivered so much, too.

In 1955, the American magazine Life published an exuberant feature on the new joys of "throwaway living", with pictures of all the wonderful plastic domestic objects which would free the housewife from kitchen drudgery. Plates, cups, cutlery, trays, almost everything that had to be washed could now be replaced by plastic and chucked away once used. This is now common practice in convenience catering - all utensils made of plastic and disposed of after one use.

Plastic was invented 150 years ago, but it didn't really take off until the Second World War, when synthetic materials proved hugely useful in airplane parts and parachutes.

It was the domestic wonder product of the 1960s, and found its iconic moment in the 1967 movie The Graduate, when Dustin Hoffman's character, Ben, is given career advice: "Just one word. Plastics."

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Plastic production was expanding and increasing, and, as its defenders point out, it has made some wonderful contributions to our way of life. Plastic has helped to preserve food longer and done wonders for medicine: plastic syringes cut down on infection, and a modern hospital would be unable to function without plastic.

The plastic carrier bag was introduced in 1976 and, according to Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, shoppers didn't take to it initially. Consumers disliked the fact that the checkout operative sometimes had to lick their fingers to open a plastic bag, but it was so cheap and convenient that it spread worldwide.

Denmark and Ireland were among the first to abolish the single-use plastic shopping bag, but it's still ubiquitous elsewhere - used, on average, just once, and for just 15 minutes. That's the main problem: plastic trash is covering the earth because it is so often used just once, then thrown away.

One answer is to focus much more intensively on recycling, which is increasingly occurring, but it probably won't be long before coffee shops are banned from selling coffee in disposable cups. An alternative is also in development - disposable cups made from biodegradable natural products. Yet I foresee the day when coffee drinkers will all adopt KeepCups.

Bottled water is a major headache. There are all kinds of schemes afoot for recycling, and big companies like Coca-Cola and Nestlé have promised that their plastics will be fully recycled or compostable by 2030.

But the economics is complicated. Some economists think there should be more taxes on plastic manufacturers, or a global fund to deal with all the plastic garbage.

Before plastic became universal, there was a simple procedure when you purchased a bottle of, say, lemonade. You bought the bottle, then made of glass, and paid a deposit. When you returned the bottle to the shop, you redeemed the deposit - I think it was three old pence. Many products were then sold loosely wrapped in paper (sugar, sweets, even tea), and enlightened municipalities provided public drinking fountains of fresh water.

The return of the public drinking fountain is one suggestion that is gaining traction. Instead of chucking away your plastic bottle when the water is gone, you just refill it. But who will make a profit from that?

The French sociologist Roland Barthes thought that plastic "is in essence the stuff of alchemy… the first magical substance which consents to be prosaic". Plastic undermined "the hierarchy of substances". It was revolutionary because it aimed not at something rare but at something common.

Plastic has been indeed revolutionary, but there's a price for everything: the disposable and throwaway plastic habit could choke the planet. Waste not, want not - or, recycle and reuse.

Belfast Telegraph


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