Plastic Paradise

Plastic bags — the kind used to tote home a carton of milk and bag of potato chips — have become the “polar bear” for the anti-plastic crowd, symbolizing impending environmental doom. This is a self-righteous clique made up mostly on helpless liberal urbanites who wouldn’t survive a week without Uber and a Whole Foods nearby.

But wait, is this an accurate characterization? Is there really an “anti-plastic” crowd? Yes, I’m sure there is. Just as there is an “anti-environment” crowd.

Neither one of these polar ends offer a solution to the real problem: plastic is great stuff, useful in a vast swath of products. In fact, it’s fair to say that plastic is everywhere. And that’s the problem.

The first synthetic plastic material, Bakalite, or, if you prefer, polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, came into commercial use in the early 20th century. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that plastic production really got going.

A world without plastic?

A study published by a team of researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Georgia, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution estimates more than 9 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the end of WWII. Lot’s of great stuff! Most of it now sitting piled in a landfill or washing into every ocean basin on the planet.

The researchers estimate that of all that plastic produced, only 30 percent is still in use. Half of the 9 billion tons of plastic produced in the past 70 years was manufactured in the past 13 years. It’s a plastic paradise. Look around you. Is there anything within sight that doesn’t contain at least some plastic? Maybe, but not much. You’re probably wearing plastic.

And why not? Who wants to live in a world without plastic? Not me.

On the other hand, who wants to live in a world clogged with plastic, with landfills brimming and oceans fouled by an unending stream of plastic waste? Not me.

Ah, and there is the rub. The very thing that makes plastic so indispensable in our daily lives threatens to choke the life out of the planet.

From the report:

The growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has substantially outpaced any other manufactured material. The same properties that make plastics so versatile in innumerable applications — durability and resistance to degradation — make these materials difficult or impossible for nature to assimilate.
Thus, without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.

Tree-hugger or good ‘ol boy, it is a conundrum I suggest we take seriously.

Image credit: kris krüg, courtesy Flickr