When I read articles or see television video about how the world is drowning in plastic these days, I can’t help thinking it’s another example of the need to be careful that what you wish for might come true.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, impermanence was a plague. Most things were made of wood or metal. Wood rotted, weakened and broke. Metal corroded, weakened and broke. Even as a kid I can remember thinking how wonderful it would be to have things made of a material that would last a lot longer.
Well, we got it. Plastic’s indestructible nature has made it a larger and larger part of our lives – that and its cheapness. To some extent plastic has answered my prayers as a kid. More and more car parts, for instance, are made of plastic, making them impervious to the corrosion of road salt. But what happens when that car has seen its day but those plastic parts are indestructible? A recent article I read suggested every piece of plastic ever created remains in the world today.
And plastic car parts are just the tip of the iceberg. Because it’s so inexpensive and can be used so many ways, plastic has become so pervasive in our lives that we don’t even think about it. When we rip one of those thin plastic bags off the roll at the fruit and vegetable counter we never stop to think that the plastic will be around for another 1,000 years. Canadians, apparently, lead the world in the production of garbage (not all of it plastics) generating 720 kg. of waste per capita each year.
Until recently, we eased our consciences in our home by collecting plastic bags and putting them out for recycling. Earlier this year our municipality announced it would no longer accept plastic bags. It turns out the rest of the world had been sending its plastic to China for recycling but China shut the door because it already had too much plastic. Municipalities now have a problem, filling up their landfill sites faster with tonnes of plastic.
The other problem is that for many people, plastic is plastic – if the recycling company accepts one sort of container then they think that anything plastic can go in the blue box. One of the benefits of my job is that you go on learning every day and years ago I did a story on the company that recycles plastic bale wrap into indestructible plastic lumber (just the sort of thing I dreamed of as a kid). They explained they chose bale wrap because they could source large amounts of plastic with exactly the same chemical make-up. Plastic from other sources was impure – a mixture of items of different polymer combinations.
Even when China was accepting our plastic for recycling, there were problems with huge floating islands of plastic that had somehow found its way into our oceans. It’s estimated that every year eight million tonnes of plastic, the equivalent of 630 billion plastic water bottles, makes its way into the oceans. The World Economic Forum has estimated that unless something is done to alter our course, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Sea animals and birds are dying from the damage done by ingesting the plastic and from the toxic chemicals given off when the plastic breaks down into smaller pieces.
We’ve created a huge problem, and of course few people want to take the responsibility of either paying to clean it up, or facing up to the incredible change required to reduce our dependence on plastic.
In the classic 1967 movie, The Graduate, a neighbour advises young Ben Braddock at his graduation party to get into plastics. If he did, he’d have become a rich man since then, catering to our addiction to plastic.◊