In an ironic twist of fate, plastic first found popularity in for its cost-effective and energy saving manufacturing process. The precursor to plastic – Parkesine, a cellulose-based material – was first demonstrated by Alexander Parkes at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. When the leap was made to thermosetting plastics and thermoplastics in the early 1900s, the use of plastics in everyday life became more and more common.
Today the sheer level and range of plastic products produced daily around the world boggles the mind, and all would be well but for the fact that plastic waste is literally choking the life out of our planet. No matter where you go, you’re bound to see evidence of our addiction to plastic littered about. The problem lies in the fact that plastic does not biodegrade but rather breaks down into microscopic particles, some of which are toxic. These toxic particles are then absorbed into our soils and oceans so posing a very real risk to the health of ourselves and our planet.
Saving Energy, Saving the Planet
Living a conscious life demands we pay attention to how our actions affect the world around us. This includes how we deal with our waste but sometimes we forget or we’re in a hurry or maybe we feel our tiny contribution has no effect at all so why bother too much. It is easy to become disillusioned or to disassociate our actions with the very real impact we humans and our waste have on the environment.
Just to give you an idea of how severe the problem is, here are some terrifying statistics. For instance, enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the globe four times; just think of the energy savings if that plastic were to be recycled instead of put into the production of more plastic. And 90% of all the waste floating on the ocean’s surface is plastic distributed at approximately 17 000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer.
Change Your Mind About Plastic
It was originally thought all this plastic pollution broke down very slowly in the environment. While this may hold true on terra firma, scientists have since discovered that plastic breaks down much faster in the oceans; on average within a year of exposure to sea water. As the plastic’s toxic chemicals and by-products become concentrated up the food chain, so they become increasingly lethal. This makes the danger of plastics to the health of our oceans (and ourselves) even greater than we ever imagined.
Approximately 44% of seabirds ingest plastic waste usually by mistake and often with fatal consequences. And plastic pollution affects 267 marine species either through erroneous ingestion or through the toxic chemicals released during its breakdown. Bisphenol A (BPA) – a compound used in hard plastics such as reusable water bottles and the linings of aluminium cans – has been demonstrated to interfere with reproduction in mammals while styrene monomer – a polystyrene by-product – is a suspected carcinogen.
The microbeads used in the production of some toothpaste brands and exfoliating scrubs further contribute to the chemical pollution that is plastic’s legacy. They’ve even been found in the Great Lakes, USA – the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world. Humans too can absorb the toxic chemicals left when plastic breaks down; one case study showed that 93% of Americans aged six or older test positive for BPA. Plastic pollution truly is at epidemic proportions and we cannot afford not to take appropriate action.
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The irony is that the convenience of plastic comes at a dear price; the energy saving benefits are negatively offset by the costs of cleaning up the tremendous amount of plastic pollution. Given the urgency of the problem, it is never too late to take an audit of the plastic items you use on a daily basis and see where you can reduce, for example by using fabric shoppers instead of plastic bags; reuse, for example using an empty ice-cream tub for food storage; or recycle by disposing of used plastic items responsibly.
Purging our planet of plastic takes a concerted effort on behalf of everyone. Hopefully we’ve inspired you to play your part in the conscious and environmentally-friendly disposal of your plastic waste.