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Ever since the BBC’s Blue Planet II aired on our screens in 2017, public awareness about the problems caused by plastic has increased significantly. Little did we realise that all those wrappers, cases, bottles and bags were ending up in seas, rivers and landfill sites to lay silently for hundreds of years, never properly biodegrading, but simply breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. So small that they have now been found in everything from the fish we eat to the bottled mineral water we drink. Plastic is all around us…. and inside us.
Another thing to bear in mind is that we have only been using plastics en masse for the last 70 years or so, and the prevalence of plastic waste can be seen from your local high street to the farthest reaches of the arctic. Scientists have estimated that we have created 8.3 billion metric tons of virgin plastics since mass production started in the 50’s. To put that into perspective, that’s the equivalent of 25,000 Empire State Buildings, or a billion Elephants. Even more saddening is the fact that about half of that total has been produced in the last 13 years alone.
History of plastic
Plastic is a polymer and polymers are made of long chains of molecules. In nature, Cellulose, the material that makes up the cell walls of plants, is a very common natural polymer. However, plastic is a man-made polymer and the long chains of atoms that they comprise of are much longer and more complicated than those found naturally. It’s these long chains that make plastic strong, lightweight, and flexible.
The first synthetic polymer was created in 1869 using natural ingredients of cotton fibre and camphor. In 1907 the first fully synthetic plastic was created called Bakelite which could be shaped or moulded into almost anything, providing endless possibilities.
After the discovery of Bakelite, major chemical companies started to invest in the research and development of polymers. Some companies made new plastics for their own sake and worried about finding uses for them later.
During WWII, the use of plastics exploded, and the applications expanded to everything from aircraft windows to parachutes. In the USA alone, plastic production increased by 300%. Our love affair with plastic continued after the war with a whole host of products now utilising plastic in their design and/or packaging. The possibilities of plastics gave some observers an almost utopian vision of a future with abundant material wealth thanks to an inexpensive, safe, sanitary substance that could be shaped by humans to their every whim.
But this didn’t last. By the 1960’s, plastic waste was first observed in the oceans and oil spills from rigs (most plastics are derived from petroleum by-products) raised concerns about pollution. The perception of plastic dropped so much that the term ‘plastic’ was used to describe something that was cheap, flimsy or fake, it had become a symbol of cheap conformity and superficiality.
Love for plastic fell even further throughout the 70’s and 80’s as people came to realise that plastic lasts forever and despite the versatility of plastic, this was an unacceptable outcome. During the 1980’s, plastic companies started to promote the concept of recycling old bottles and packaging. Although we’ve been recycling for the last 30 or so years, the process is far from perfect. Of all the plastic produced to date, only about 9% has been recycled, about 12% incinerated and the rest has been sent to landfill or ended up in our streams, rivers and oceans.
Why not just ditch plastic?
Humans have a rather complicated relationship with plastic. Plastics are essential to modern life. Plastics made possible the development of computers, cell phones, and most of the lifesaving advances of modern medicine. Perhaps most importantly, inexpensive plastics raised the standard of living and made material abundance more readily available. Without plastics many possessions that we take for granted might be out of reach for all but the richest of people. Replacing natural materials with plastic has made many of our possessions cheaper, lighter, safer, and stronger.
Plastic is also important to help feed the population. Without it many of the foods we enjoy today may never have made it to the table. Food life can be extended significantly with the use of plastic packaging (some argue that food waste is just as dangerous as plastic waste due to methane emitted by rotting food). We could not purchase liquids, gels, powders or out-of-season fruit. We would have signiﬁcant problems with food safety and hygiene. Products sold loose have been found to suﬀer from greater in- store waste, in some cases leading to increases of 20%. Damage and losses would occur to goods in the retail and logistics chain too.
So, what can we do?
Since the early 2000’s, plastic packaging has reduced in weight by about 28%. There are regulations in place that require all packaging specifiers to reduce the amount of packaging used without compromising its functionality.
Recycling bins have been around for a long time, we even have them at home with regular collections on a weekly/fortnightly basis. Many offices and businesses also make great efforts to recycle their waste.
Cleaning the Sea
There are several ideas currently being developed to help rid the sea of it’s floating piles of waste. This include The Ocean Cleanups Ocean Sweeper (which was mentioned in our last blog) designed by 23-year-old Boyan Slat. Another project is the Sea Bin, which is smaller in scale and designed to be used around Marinas and Docks.
Possibly the most inexpensive and important out of them all. Raising public awareness about the consequences of too much plastic can help change consumer habits. If consumers start demanding a reduction in plastic packaging, companies will have to listen and act if they want to maintain a successful business. Raising awareness also enables the public to be more careful in how they use and dispose of plastic.
Is it too late?
The earth has been around for billions of years and has seen it’s fair share of catastrophic situations, whilst in the short-term things might not look good, the earth has an uncanny ability to heal itself. This doesn’t get us off the hook though, whilst the Earth is a dab hand at self-healing, this could take thousands of years, the blink of an eye for the Earth but a very long time for us humans. If we want our children to grow up in a pollution free world we need to act now, we need people and businesses to start thinking outside the box and start pushing the boundaries of innovation. We crated the atom bomb and put a man on the moon…. I’m pretty sure we are more than capable of picking up all the rubbish we have strewn across the Earth.
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I contacted Ambitek last year about employment. They quickly responded and helped me get a job! I now have a full time job thanks to Ambitek and their staff. They have always paid me on time and have always been there to help me if I needed any advice! Now me and my family are doing great all thanks to Ambitek.
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