The problem with plastics

June 27, 2018 2 Comments

Hi everyone. As this is my first blog post i'll take a minute to introduce myself. My name is Josh, I’m a 26-year-old scientist, working to reduce plastic toxicity in the pharmaceutical industry. I’m also a consumer; much of what I eat, drink, buy is wrapped, made from or generated plastic waste.

More than most i’m aware of the problem caused by our dependency on plastic which is why I founded Soseas, an environmentally friendly company offering reusable & biodegradable alternatives. Our aim is bold and simple, to reduce plastic waste.

Don’t know much about plastics? What follows is a brief history of plastic and its usage in everyday life.

What are plastics?

Simply put, plastics are polymers. Small units of carbon-based molecules repeated to give long chains. These long chains can slip and move over one another to differing degrees giving the plastics their unique properties. Thermosetting plastics, for example, are more rigid and tough, they feature long strongly linked chains and are used in plastic crockery, adhesives and fillers. Thermoplastics, on the other hand, are joined together by weak bonds making them more malleable. A common example of this type of plastic is Nylon which you’ll find in everything from toothbrush bristles to tights.

It may surprise you to know that humans have used polymers for centuries. Back in medieval times, craftsmen took thin slices of animal horn to make lantern windows, animal horn being made out of keratin (the same stuff as your hair and skin), a type of polymer, albeit naturally occurring.

Long before this, the Olmecs in Mexico played with balls made from another common polymer, rubber.

Fast forward to the mid-19th-century American inventor, John Wesley Hyatt popularised and commercialised the first semi-synthetic plastic, Celluloid, a nitrocellulose based polymer. Plastic revolutionised manufacturing forever as it was no longer dependant on scarce natural resources such as rubber or animal horn and it could be made on demand and at scale.

By World War II, plastics had become commonplace; Nylon was replaced silk in parachutes and hemp in rope, and polymers such as Plexiglas were used in airplane windows and canopies.

After the war plastic producers had to dream up new ways of using this wonder-material. They turned their attention to household goods. Plastic could be bent, twisted, pulled, dropped without breaking and would last indefinitely. It rapidly became commonplace in our homes and in our lives.

Plastics’ biggest advantage is also its greatest flaw—it sticks around for hundreds, even thousands of years.

 

The Plastic plague

To date, over 6 billion tonnes of plastic waste has been produced. If this trend continues, roughly 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste will be in existence by 2050, that's approximately a billion double-decker buses.

The problem with plastic waste becomes particularly apparent when we look at the amount that ends up in our ocean (an estimated 10 million tonnes a year) and what happens to it once it arrives there.

The issues with larger pieces of plastic debris are obvious and heart wrenching. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of turtles caught in fishing nets, seabirds feeding their chicks pieces of bright blue plastic believing it to be food, and seals garrotted by plastic bags. It certainly makes for difficult viewing.

The problem doesn’t end there.

Over time, ocean plastic breaks down into small fragments which can be ingested by marine life often resulting in malnutrition and the death of the animal. These fragments, microplastics, can also make their way into our food chain. One third of fish caught for human consumption have been found to contain plastic.

Many plastics contain additives and chemicals that, in small doses, are relatively harmless, however, when these chemicals accumulate in the body over time, their toxicity increases significantly. For example, the toxin BPA which is present in some water bottles has a hormone-disrupting property known to cause a host of health problems. I will be covering this topic in greater detail in future blog posts, for now, it’s important to understand plastic is an issue that isn't going away.

I hope this brief introduction will inspire you to use less plastic whenever possible and that's the aim of the Soseas blog. Expect to see more science-based, actionable content in the future which I hope will give you the tools to kick the plastic habit.

If you’re wondering where to start, I’ve created an easy to implement cheatsheet to help you on your way on your plastic-free journey. To get your free copy sign up today. Together, we really can make a difference. 

 

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2 Responses

Lola
Lola

July 01, 2018

Thank you for doing this.

Caroline
Caroline

July 01, 2018

A really interesting read. I’m already on the journey but look forward to reading your cheatsheet for handy hints. Thanks :)

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