What is the price of convenience?
Plastics have become a part of modern living. Practically anywhere you look, you’ll surely find something made, even at least in part, out of plastic, from electronics down to the shopping bag that contained items you recently bought.
And it is fairly easy to understand why. The material is light and durable, reasonably easy to manufacture, and compared to other materials, relatively cheap to produce.
However, with the growing awareness about the impact of plastics on the environment, it is worthwhile to ask whether you can live a life free from the use of plastics. Is convenience a steep price to pay when the tradeoff is the destruction of the environment?
A brief history of plastics
Plastics, also known as synthetic polymers, or hydrophobic polymers, were invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869 in response to a company’s search for a material that can be used as a substitute for ivory. During Hyatt’s experiments, he discovered that plastics could be fabricated into different shapes and mimic natural materials like ivory.
Before Hyatt’s discovery of plastics, people relied on nature for the materials they used for manufacturing. These include metal, timber, stone, and various animal parts. To a large degree, many people viewed plastics as a viable means to conserve wildlife and save the environment from humanity’s seemingly unstoppable needs.
Leo Baekeland is credited for inventing Bakelite in 1907. Unlike Hyatt’s discovery, Bakelite is fully synthetic, which means it does not contain any molecule that can be found in nature.
The invention of Bakelite is crucial for a wide variety of reasons. Initially, Baekeland was searching for a substitute for shellac, which is used as an electrical insulator. What he discovered was something more – a material that can be used for the fabrication of practically anything. Apart from that, Bakelite was sturdy, heat-resistant, and easy to mass-produce.
World War II saw the surge in the use of plastics as militaries from around the world, most notably the United States, were searching for materials that can be used as alternatives to natural materials.
One such substitute is nylon. Wallace Carothers invented the material in 1935 as a substitute for silk. During the war, nylon was used for the production of parachutes, helmet liners, body armor, and more.
Soon after, plastics captured the hearts of the people as more companies used these as an alternative for the materials used in the fabrication of cars, furniture, and more.
A growing awareness
The 1960s saw an increase in public awareness of environmental problems. During this time, the use of plastics came under scrutiny. If, during the previous decades, plastics were seen as a versatile, affordable, and safe material, the public associated plastics with being fake and flimsy.
But what’s the big deal with plastics? A lot.
Plastics have become ubiquitous, found in a diverse range of objects you use in your daily life, from personal care products to the clothes you wear. But the main problem lies in single-use plastics or items that have been designed to be used once and disposed of after.
Further compounding this problem is the fact that the waste management systems used around the world cannot keep pace with the number of plastics thrown away. A substantial amount of plastic trash winds its way to the various waterways, including the rivers and seas where it can wreak havoc on marine animals, from fish to mammals like the dugong.
Unlike natural materials, plastics are not biodegradable. It will take hundreds of years to break down the material thoroughly. And when plastics do degrade, the chemicals that make it up can seep into the water and soil, causing further damage to different environments like natural wetlands.
Experts are predicting that if things do not change, the number of plastics in the ocean can outnumber the amount of fish.
You can be a part of the solution
The problems associated with single-use plastics cannot be resolved on their own. These require a concerted effort from everyone, including you. But how exactly can you contribute?
Stop using single-use plastic bags for your food
Conventional sandwich bags can only be used for a number of times before they need to be disposed of. Instead of using these, make the switch to reusable sandwich bags.
And instead of plastic wrap, you can use reusable food wraps, like those made with bee’s wax.
Invest in a reusable water bottle
Instead of buying water in a plastic bottle every time you need a drink of water, why not just bring your own water in a reusable water bottle?
If you have no option but to buy a beverage, choose one that is stored in a can rather than plastic cups. Aluminum cans are made from recycled material and can be more easily recycled compared to plastic bottles and cups.
Ditch the plastic straw
If you are eating out or buying a soda, tell the server that unless they are giving paper straws, you won’t be using a plastic straw. Better yet, buy a reusable straw and bring it with you when going out.
Bring a reusable container for your groceries
Apart from using a reusable bag to carry all the items you purchased from the grocery store, you can also use reusable containers like fabric bags for the individual things you buy. This lessens the need for plastic bags. For fresh produce like groceries, you can ditch the plastics entirely.
Support charitable causes
If you want to be a conscious consumer, there are many organizations out there which support various environmental causes. For example, if you’re buying jewelry and want to support ocean cleanup efforts, you can buy an ocean cleanup bracelet from an organization which donates part of their profits to the cause you’d like to support.
Every little bit helps
All of these actions may seem to amount to nothing when compared to the massive problem that is pollution caused by plastics. However, every little thing counts and your small measures mean a lot in the overall fight to stop plastic pollution.