To say the invention of plastic revolutionized manufacturing is an understatement – it literally changed our lives forever. With its roots going back hundreds of years, the development of plastic is credited to English chemist Alexander Parkes and the discovery of Parkesine (nitrocellulose), considered to be the first man-made plastic. Tied in to the evolution of photography, celluloid plates became a lighter alternative to the heavy and fragile glass plates used to capture early images.
As with many inventions, others soon improved upon Parkes’ discovery, including American inventor John Wesley Hyatt. Also a successful entrepreneur, Hyatt formed the Albany Dental Plate Company, which produced products such as billiard balls and false teeth out of plastic, deriving its name from the Latin and Greek words plasticus and plastikos, meaning “capable of moulding” and “fit for moulding.” Over time, innovation led to the development of Bakelite in 1909. Widely credited as the first truly synthetic plastic, the material was used for telephone and radio casings, jewellery, pot handles, toys, and much more.
Popular with industry and consumers
With the ability to take on virtually any shape, plastics were soon embraced by practically every manufacturer, along with households worldwide. A part of our lives for well over a century, it is nearly impossible to remember a world without plastic. From melamine formaldehyde (MF) used to create plates and bowls and the protective top layer of shelving, to heat-resistant silicone used for cooking utensils, plastics are everywhere.
Able to be produced in any color, plastic products do not rust, unlike metal, and do not degrade or hold bacteria, unlike wood and other natural materials. Non-conductive, plastics are ideal for tool handles and electrical outlet faceplates, drills, and sanders. An integral part of the automotive sector, more and more lightweight plastics are being used, with the average car containing almost 300 pounds of plastic, from air vent covers to door handles and cup holders. And without plastics, much of the entertainment industry would never have existed. From the so-called ‘unbreakable’ music records for children of the 1950s to the development of the cassette tape, later VHS, then CDs and DVDs, plastic continues to be a part of our everyday existence.
Plastic… not so fantastic?
As plastic products evolved, they became known for their lightweight properties, durability, and convenience. Injection moulding saw patents taken out on plastic cutlery. One of them, from Bruno Mastrangelo, was filed with the European Patent Office, and “refers to the field of plastic cutlery of the disposable type such as, for example, forks, spoons, knives, teaspoons and the like.” Among the many attributes cited, these products were noted for being able to be stacked and bundled 10 to 50 on top of one another, making them easy to ship with a low manufacturing cost. In addition, “they are used only once and then they are sent for disposal.”
The downside, of course, of cheap, convenient, and disposable: some plastic cannot be recycled and ends up in landfill, where it can take millennia to decompose, can leach harmful chemicals into the environment, and cannot be digested by the planet or animals.
The straw and the turtle
Like disposable cutlery, drinking straws are a product of the plastics revolution. Originally crafted from gold for Sumerians to drink beer centuries ago, the humble straw was also made from natural material like ryegrass straw and bamboo. Disadvantages remained, however, with these and paper straws absorbing too much liquid and turning to mush, or creating a peculiar aftertaste.
Plastics soon came to the rescue. Invented by Hyatt in 1870, and with Marvin Stone filing a patent in 1888, plastic straws did not become popular until the 1960s, when restaurants and homeowners recognized their advantages; namely, they were inexpensive to buy and didn’t disintegrate like their paper counterparts. Soon, convenience stores like 7-Eleven and bubble tea shops embraced even larger-diameter straws to accommodate items like frozen Slushies and tapioca pearls, which could not be sucked up through a regular-sized straw.
For many years, it seemed the future of plastics was assured – until August of 2015. That year, a marine biologist, Christine Figgener, posted an eight-minute video on YouTube of her and a visiting researcher removing an object with pliers from the nostril of a male turtle found off Costa Rica’s coast. With the turtle bleeding, hissing and in obvious pain, the team initially thought a firmly-wedged hookworm was the culprit. They soon realized to their horror the ‘hookworm’ was, in fact, a four-inch long piece of plastic straw. It is unknown how long the creature suffered with the object lodged in its nostril, which was not only painful, but impaired the male’s sense of smell and orientation, and possibly made eating and mating difficult.
Within hours, the video depicting the turtle’s agony – and eventual relief after having the foreign object wrenched from its nostril – went viral. As of today, the video “Sea Turtle with Straw up its Nostril – ‘NO’ TO PLASTIC STRAWS” has garnered over 33,990,860 views. Two months after the video was posted, Figgener told the Plastic Free Times: “We have been talking about the detrimental effects of straws for years, but seeing that video, as horrible as it was, is what we needed to wake people up.”
Millions of plastic straws used daily
Although Figgener does not believe her video of the turtle was the sole reason for the huge shift in our attitude toward single-use plastics, she does state that the creature’s agony woke many people up to the reality of single-use plastics, which many of us don’t give a thought to once we are finished eating or drinking. The number of plastic straws used in just the United States is staggering: an estimated 500 million every day (others believe the figure is closer to 390 million). Since the turtle and the straw video, more scrutiny is being paid to plastics in our streams, lakes, and oceans.
Sadly, not a day goes by without a story about marine life being trapped in plastic or choking on plastic bags and other trash, as happened recently with a young, rare Baleen whale found stranded on the shores of Masonboro Island. The necropsy of the emaciated 17-foot whale found plastic and seaweed tangled in its esophagus. And in late 2018, a 31-foot Sperm whale which washed up in eastern Indonesia had a staggering 13 pounds of plastic in its stomach, including 25 plastic bags, 115 plastic cups, two flip-flops, four plastic bottles, a nylon sack, and over 1,000 other bits and pieces of plastic. Although the whale had decomposed too much to determine if eating plastic was the cause of death, the sheer amount of indigestible plastic found inside the creature drew worldwide outrage, and further reinforced the danger to wildlife of plastic, which whales often mistake for squid or jellyfish.
Like whales, fish and other marine life regularly ingest plastic, mistaking it for food, with an estimated 90 percent of seabirds believed to have consumed the indigestible substance.
Much as tossing a stone into a pond creates ripples, video of the turtle suffering because of a plastic straw embedded in its nostril created a worldwide tsunami. A study published in Science in 2015, Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, addressed the issue of plastics entering the ocean. While exact quantities were unknown, some estimate 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes end up in our oceans every year, with plastic straws accounting for four percent of that amount.
Worldwide, many restaurants have already forsaken plastic straws, a move largely driven by consumers. Cities are following suit, like Seattle, which became the largest American city to ban plastic straws in July of last year. Just one week later, coffee giant Starbucks stated it will eliminate plastic straws from every one of its over 28,000 locations by 2020, a move heralded by the Ocean Conservancy as “a shining example of the important role that companies can play in stemming the tide of ocean plastic.” While many applauded the initiative, others remain critical of the Seattle-headquartered business and its ongoing use of large, clear plastic beverage lids. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, fast food giant McDonald’s announced it will ban plastic straws. And this January, Washington, D.C. imposed a ban on plastic straws not only in restaurants, but in related service businesses.
Is single-use cutlery next?
With over 100 million plastic utensils used by Americans every, it was inevitable single-use plastics would become an environmental concern. With restaurants and cities worldwide banning plastic straws, companies like Alaska Airlines have stated that plastic straws and stirrers will soon be a thing of the past on its airplanes. With the issue far from over, the next stage of reducing or eliminating single-use plastics will include forks, knives, spoons, and containers used in fast-food and takeout restaurants. Many large corporations are already on board with reduction initiatives, including Walmart Canada, which plans to reduce plastic bag usage by one billion bags by 2025, and replace plastic straws with paper by 2020. Others, including KFC – one of the first restaurants to embrace disposable plastic cutlery – have pledged to make all of their “plastic-based, consumer-facing packaging” reusable or recoverable by 2025.
There is no doubt that the move away from single-use plastics will require introspection, ingenuity, and a shift in attitude to be successful; after all, generations are accustomed to plastic products, begging the question: what will replace them? Some have suggested a throwback to the ubiquitous milkman of the 1950s, and reusable and recyclable glass containers to move toward the goal of Zero Waste – a philosophy and a goal which includes using only what we need, composting, recycling and sending nothing to landfill. Others believe manufacturing products from vegetable-based materials is the answer, with one company demonstrating that six-pack rings used for beer – currently made from plastic, and disastrous to marine life – can be made from beer by-products like wheat, and actually used to feed marine life.
Although our dependence on plastic seems poised to lessen over time, it will likely never disappear in our lifetime. In many ways, the best solutions are the simplest, and adopt a mindset of what the world looked like before the 1950s. Back then, many products came in glass, which was washed and reused. We brought groceries home in degradable paper sacks or washable cloth bags. Even small efforts, like saying no to plastic products like bags from stores or drycleaners, and using our own cutlery instead of plastic utensils, will make a difference today and in the future.