In today’s society, a world without plastic is nearly impossible to imagine.


In today’s society, a world without plastic is nearly impossible to imagine. Since its invention in 1869, plastic has invaded just about every aspect of life today, and not with­out consequences. From drinking water to Earth’s oceanic ecosystems, plastic is contaminating everything it touches.

The word “plastic” originally held the meaning “pliable and easily shaped.” It wasn’t until recently that the word became a popular term for a category of polymers.

Polymers are long chains of molecules that can be found in nature; however, over the last 150 years, humans have learned how to make synthetic polymers, often times using carbon atoms provided by petroleum and other fossil fuels. Synthetic polymers are made up of chains of atoms arranged in repeating units that are normally much longer than their natural counterparts.

It is the length and patterns in which these chains are arranged that make polymers strong, lightweight, flexible, and “plastic.” Its properties make it incredibly useful, and over the last 50 years plastic has changed our world and the way we live.

In 1869, a New York firm offered $10,000 to anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. Obtained through the slaughter of wild elephants, the growing popularity of billiards had put a strain on the supply. By treating cellulose with camphor, a man named Wesley Hyatt discovered a plastic that could be crafted to imitate substances such as horn, linen, tortoiseshell and ivory. At the time the discovery was revolutionary and helped people as well as the environment, as it was assumed that plastics could protect nature from the destruction of human need and free people from the constraints of scarcity.

The first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was created in 1907 by Leo Baekeland due to the rapidly developing electrical needs of the United States. It was durable, heat resistant, and ideally suited for mass production. Marketed as “the material of a thousand uses,” Hyatt’s and Baekeland’s successes paved the way for a new age of research and development for new polymers and plastics.

During WWII, plastic production in the US increased by 300 percent, and the war created an even bigger need to preserve natural resources. The invention of Nylon by Wallace Carothers in 1935 was used for numerous products such as parachutes, ropes, body armor, helmet liners and more, and Plexiglas provided an alternative to glass for aircraft windows. A Time Magazine article stated at the time: “Plastics have been turned to new uses and the adaptability of plastics demonstrated all over again.”

The surge in plastic production continued even after the war, as Americans had money to spend again after the end of the Great Depression and WWII. Plastic challenged traditional materials time and time again due to the notion that it was a safe, inexpensive, and sanitary substance that could be used for nearly any imaginable purpose.

Environmental awareness came about during the 1960s when Americans became aware of the environmental problems they were causing. Plastic debris was observed in the oceans and air pollution was all around; it was no longer accepted as the scent of prosperity. The 1962 Rachel Carson book Silent Spring exposed the dangers of chemical pesticides, and in 1969 a major oil spill occurred off the coast of California and caught fire, finally raising awareness surrounding pollution and public health.

The first Earth Day occurred on April 22, 1970, when Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson used the social energy from the anti-war movement to inspire awareness to the public about air and water pollution. On that day, 20 million Americans rallied in streets, parks and auditoriums across the country to demonstrate awareness for a healthy, sustainable environment.

Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests and many environmental groups realized they shared common goals.

Earth Day 1970 brought political alignment and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.

In 1990 Earth Day became a globally recognized holiday, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries. Earth Day 2000 used the internet to organize activist groups, and hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Washington D.C., sending political leaders the message that people around the world wanted immediate action on global warming and clean energy.

Unfortunately, Earth Day 2010 was challenging for the environmental community. Climate change deniers, oil lobbyists, politicians, a disinterested public and divided environmental community contributed to the cynicism vs. activism debate. However, 250,000 people gathered at the National Mall for a climate rally, launched the Billion Acts of Green® project, introduced the Canopy Project, and engaged 22,000 people in 192 countries.

Regardless of the data and evidence, there are people today who deny the existence of pollution and climate change.

Since the 1980s, anxiety regarding plastic waste has increased considerably. Nowadays nearly all plastic products are disposable, but last forever in the environment. In the 80s the plastics industry offered recycling as a solution, but recycling is far from perfect and most plastic continues to end up in landfills and the environment. The manifestation of the problem is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is an island of plastic garbage the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean.

Recently, plastics have begun to pose a threat to human health in addition to environmental health. Chemicals are added to plastics during the manufacturing process in order to make them more flexible, durable and transparent. The scientific community and members of society are concerned over evidence that these chemicals leak from the plastic into our food, water, and our bodies, and in high amounts these chemicals can disrupt the body’s endocrine system.

Next week we’ll take a closer look at how plastics harm the human body and Earth’s ecosystems.

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