In which we explore just how big a monster we've created.
We are a species that largely thrives on progress, which isn’t necessarily the worst trait in the world. But we are also a species that can’t get enough of a good thing, which often leads to the good thing becoming a bad thing. Our unquenchable lust for innovation leads us to mindlessly push matters to the extreme, and then push some more and more and more. We can’t seem to help ourselves!
When the modern plastics era boomed in 1907 with the invention of Bakelite a whole new world opened up. The first synthetic plastics were revolutionary and allowed for everything from unbreakable baby cups to military vehicle parts.
Plastic was celebrated for its versatility and durability, the same two attributes that have us in such a mess today.
Synthetic plastics had the “advantage that they seemingly lasted forever. No organisms had evolved that were capable of digesting these complicated and alien materials,” notes the BBC referring to plastic’s long chains of carbon-carbon bonds that nature doesn’t know how to break down. “But that advantage is, of course, also a great disadvantage. Plastic might sit in a landfill, or litter a street, for thousands of years without decomposing.”
And thus, the monster is upon us. We have a miracle material with a dark side and we keep churning it out at prodigious rates, and in doing so, changing the surface of the planet in woefully enduring ways.
From fascinating to heartbreaking, consider the following:
1. Most plastic is manufactured from petroleum – something many might not think that much about – the end product of millions of years of naturally decayed organisms.
2. Bakelite, invented by Leo Baekeland in 1907, is considered the first synthetic plastic in that it wasn’t made from plants or animals, but synthesized from fossil fuels.
3. Baekeland’s work lead to the development of polystyrene in 1929, polyester in 1930, polyvinylchloride (PVC) and polythene in 1933, and nylon in 1935.
4. Plastic played a large role in the war effort, used in everything from military vehicles to radar insulation, which really sparked the industry. Petroleum companies built plants to turn crude oil into plastic, reports the BBC. When the war ended, the industry faced a glut,that was cured by creating all kinds of new uses for the material.
5. The production of plastic uses around eight percent of the world’s oil production.
6. In 2009, Americans generated 30 million tons of plastics.
7. In 2009, $485 million worth of plastic was wasted in the United States, notes Keep America Beautiful – enough for 1,000 households to live on the U.S. median income for nearly a decade.
8. In 2012, 288 million tons of plastic was manufactured globally.
9. In 2013, Americans generated 33 million tons of plastics.
10. In 2013, Americans recycled nine percent of their plastic waste.
11. Ninety-four percent of people living in the U.S. have access to plastic bottle recycling; 40 percent can recycle other types of plastic containers as well.
12. Plastic buried deep in landfills can leach harmful chemicals that spread into groundwater.
13. Eight million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year; the equivalent of five grocery bags per every foot of coastline across the planet.
14. Ocean plastic can be found everywhere, from deep in the sea to frozen in remote Arctic ice.
15. A staggering 700 species of marine wildlife have reportedly ingested plastic, according to National Geographic.
16. Plastic will be found in 99 percent of seabirds by 2050.
17. Ocean plastic has a life expectancy of thousands of years.
18. Floating plastic waste serves as transportation for invasive species like barnacles, tubeworms and algae, causing all kinds of ecological havoc to be wreaked. In one example on an island west of the Antarctic Peninsula, ten species of foreign invertebrates were found clinging to plastic trash on the ice.
19. Eight out of every 10 babies in the U.S. have measurable levels of phthalates in their bodies. Phthalates are used as plasticizers in a number of product categories.
20. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did a study that found 93 percent of people had detectable levels of Bisphenol A (BPA) in their urine. BPA is used in polycarbonate bottles and the linings of food and beverage cans.
21. Research reveals that phthalates and BPA affect reproduction in all studied animal groups and impair development in crustaceans and amphibians.
22. Every year is it estimated that around 500 billion plastic bags are used globally.
23. More than one million bags are used every 60 seconds.
24. In the first 10 years of this century we have manufactured more plastic than in all of the 20th century.
25. Plastic is one of the most enduring materials we make; it takes an estimated 500 to 1,000 years for it to degrade.
26. Fifty percent of the plastic we produce is used once and then thrown away.
For much more, see the TreeHugger plastics archive.