The Data Behind Our Eco-Friendly Gifts: A Brief History Of Plastic Pollution
Plastic is used in almost everything in our everyday lives. From crisp packets to water bottles, to what we wear and how our food is transported.
Since its invention, it has caused huge damage to our oceans and wildlife, and presents risk to humans as well.
The massive accumulation of plastic waste in our oceans, beaches and land is known as plastic pollution. But first, let’s find out how it got to this stage…
When Was Plastic Invented?
Bakelite, the first plastic, was invented in 1907. The inventor was Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian born American Chemist. Bakelite was originally used for machinery, and then slightly later in consumer-use products from 1920 onwards.
Several of the most common plastics used today, such as Polyethylene Terephthalate, were invented by DuPont chemists in the 1940s.
When we talk about plastic, we are referring to conventional fossil fuel based plastic. The raw materials for common fossil based plastics are non renewable, and non sustainable. Fossil based plastics such as PET and PE are produced from petroleum, and other fossil fuels.
Bioplastics are polymers which have the ability to biodegrade, or are produced from renewable biomass sources, or both. We will get onto bioplastics a bit later.
Why Was Plastic Considered A Good Thing?
Plastics have the following characteristics: they are lightweight, strong and malleable. This means they can be molded into almost any shape. This is why plastic is used in such a vast array of products, such as plastic bags, water bottles and takeaway containers.
Because they don't biodegrade, they can be used to contain food and drink for long periods of time without the risk of contamination.
When Did People Realise Plastic Pollution Was A Problem?
A huge downside stemming from plastics characteristics, and it's inability to biodegrade, is plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is the build up of plastic waste in the natural environment, due to improper disposal.
Due to the increased use of plastic in our everyday lives, it is not a thing that suddenly became obvious to many of us that it is a bad material.
However, due the increasing evidence provided by documentaries and photography, we are all waking up to the fact plastic pollution has become a destructive problem on a global scale.
Through huge amounts of plastic entering our oceans, the damage to wildlife has been catastrophic. Since the 1950s, a staggering 165 million tonnes of plastic have entered our oceans.
Plastic debris is becoming an increasingly large threat to marine life. Marine predators are dying from ingesting plastic debris, and marine populations are dwindling as a result.
There are now many cases of marine predators, including different varieties of seabirds, found dead with their stomachs filled with plastic. It was recently discovered that marine predators think plastic smells like food.
This is due to dimethyl sulfide, or DMS. DMS is a natural product produced by algae in the ocean. Algae are consumed by krill, a small marine crustacean.
DMS gives off a strong odor, which signals to marine predators that krill are present, as they will be consuming the algae which is giving off the strong smell.
It turns out that plastic debris is a perfect environment to encourage algae populations to increase.
Unfortunately for marine predators, they mistake the plastic giving off the strong smell for krill, and they end up ingesting the plastic debris inadvertently.
Common Types Of Plastic
If you've ever looked on a plastic packet, and wondered what the numbers inside the recycling symbol mean, you're not alone.
There are seven types of plastic that are commonly produced on a mass scale, and they each have a number from 1-7.
The order of the numbers relates to how easily each plastic is recycled. Number one is the most easily recycled, whilst number seven is the hardest to recycle.
The type of plastic represented by number one, is PET. Polyethylene Terephthalate is commonly used in fizzy drink bottles, and is a large contributor to the plastic pollution crisis.
Large fizzy drink brands are under mounting pressure to reduce the amount of pollution they are creating around the world.
With more and more photos of their bottles washing up on beaches globally, they will have to do something fast to stop the growing numbers refusing to buy their product.
Number two is HDPE, or high-density polyethylene. HDPE is commonly used to make milk bottles with. In the UK, approximately 4 billion HDPE milk bottles are produced and sold every year.
Number three is polyvinyl chloride. PVC is starting to replace traditional building materials such as wood and metal, to be used in several construction applications.
Number four is similar to number two, but has a lower density. LDPE, or low-density polyethylene, is used in chemical tank liners due to it's good chemical resistance.
Both HDPE and LDPE are both derived from Polyethylene, which is the most popular plastic in the world. HDPE and LDPE have different properties because of the structure of their molecules.
HDPE's structure is crystalline, which gives it a higher density that LDPE. It is also far tougher than it's lower density counterpart. Because LDPE's structure is non crystalline, it results in a lower density, and greater flexibility that HDPE.
Number five is polypropylene.
The first PP resign was produced in 1954 by Professor Giulio Natta, a chemist working in Italy. PP is used in many products including bottle tops, drinking straws and lunch boxes.
It sits just behind number four, LDPE, in terms of global plastic waste percentage with 19%. (LDPE is responsible for 20% of all global plastic waste).
Number six is a plastic commonly used in disposable coffee cups, plastic food boxes and packing foam. It also makes that horrible sound when you run your fingers down it. Polystyrene in foam form is actually 95% air, which explains why it is so light relative to other plastics.
The final plastics on the recycling list are used to make nylon threads, baby bottles and CD's. There are a whole group of plastics that fall under this number seven category, and they are all extremely hard to recycle.
Because of the difficulty in recycling plastics, only 9% of all plastic ever created has been recycled. The rest has ended up in the natural environment, in landfill, or has been incinerated.
Due to the difficulty at every step of the way, the process of recycling means that many recyclable items are not recycled. Why are there so many fizzy drinks bottles washing up on beaches on the other side of the world, when they can be 'easily' recycled?
In many cases, developed countries export their plastic waste to be recycled. Up until 2018, the main destination was China. For China as a country, it was cheaper to import plastic waste to recycle and manufacture, than it was to manufacture it from scratch themselves.
In 2018, China imported their National Sword Programme. This meant that they would only import plastic that was 99.5% pure.
Up until then, developed countries such as the UK and US were sending plastic of quality far lower than that percentage. This meant that much of the waste sent for recycling was just dumped illegally or burned in the destination country.
Direct first hand evidence of this illegal dumping comes a US recycling firm tracking their plastic waste sent to China to be recycled. The tracking showed that much of the exported waste had not been recycled, and had just been dumped in the local canyon.
Recycling figures from countries exporting their plastic waste are based upon how much plastic is exported. As soon as the plastic leaves the country to be recycled, it counts as being fully recycled.
It does not take into account what happens to it in the destination country. Theoretically, if the destination country decided to illegally dump all of their imported plastic waste, it would still count as being recycled from the exporting country.
Because of this huge dumping of plastic waste in developing countries, it is easy for plastic to make its way into rivers, which in turn leads to seas and oceans.
For this reason, as well as the pure amount of plastic that China is producing, it was found that China produces around a third of plastic polluting the world's oceans.
With this blog, we hope it's given you a better understanding of the origins of plastic, and why there is such a build up of it in the natural environment.
Because most common fossil based plastics don't have the ability to biodegrade, they stay present in the environment for long periods of time. As the amount of plastic increases in the marine environment, marine populations are at risk from ingesting plastic debris, causing numbers to fall.
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