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  • Writer's pictureSarah Roberts

Plastic Pollution - How did we get into this mess?

Updated: May 24, 2019

Mirco Plastic can be found in the sand grains of beaches world wide but how did it get there?

It’s an undeniable environmental crisis, one that requires collaboration across the board with industries, public and politicians from opposite ends of the spectrum working together to fix it. However, if we’re going to solve this problem, it’s important that we fully understand the cause of it. So with that in mind, I’m going to start by blowing your mind:

plastic is not what you think it is!

When you hear the word plastic, you are no doubt picturing a piece of coloured or see-through material created from crude oil. Plastic is this, but it is also much, much, more…

The term plastic, actually derives from the greek word ‘Plastikos’, which essentially refers to anything pliable or mouldable. The earliest form of plastic dates back to 1600BC when we used a form of rubber to make a ball game. From then on, plastic referred mostly to naturally derived products such as animal horn or turtle shell. In fact, it was only when elephants and turtles were on the verge of extinction in the 1800’s (thanks to growing plastic demand), that we really started looking for synthetic alternatives.

First we had Gutta Percha, a rubber-like material, which can probably still be found now, coating the original Trans- Atlantic Telegraph cables somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. Then we gained Celluloid, which was created to make billiard balls from plant resin and could be flattened and cut to make combs or sunglasses frames too.

However, the BIG breakthrough that changed the world arrived in 1907, when Leo Baekeland experimented with crude oil to make 'Bakelite', the first type of synthetic plastic made from a fossil fuel. The timing of this discovery and those materials which followed (Nylon, PVC, Polyester etc) is incredibly important to this story.

What happened next, is the reason why we are in such a mess now...

You see around the time plastic (derived from fossil fuel) was invented, Hitler invaded Poland and the second world war broke out. This meant the extraction of RAW materials such as steal, wood and rubber, staggered to a halt. With unlimited flexibility, incredible strength and insulating properties, plastic stepped up to play an integral role during the war. It was used in tanks, radios, guns, helmets, parachutes - it was even used to contain the gas in the original atomic bomb! It was no wonder that plastic firms were set up all around the country to meet this new demand. When the war was over however, the industry had to get creative to maintain this income.

Although it had proven it's use in the medical and transport industry, up to this point, the public still generally perceived 'plastic' as a temporary and poorer alternative to their long lasting and more expensive items. Imagine this though, it's the end of May 1945, you've been living on strict rations, far apart from your loved one for 6 years and you now, finally, have the opportunity to begin family life together. However, you are on a budget.

In a bold move to convince the public that plastic could have many useful and exciting possibilities in the household too, America opened a 'National Plastics Exposition' showcasing toys, disposable tupperware, nappies, cheap appliances and many more shiny and colourful items, all of which up to this point, were completely unaffordable to the general public.

With the perfect recipe, the age of consumerism was born and our mindset towards this and many other products, changed completely.


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