Ask Eartha: The problem of plastic
High Country Conservation Center
I’m frustrated that so much of what we buy is plastic or wrapped in plastic, and I can’t even recycle it. How did we get here, and why aren’t things getting better?
In trying to solve the problems of the present, we sometimes forget that looking back can help us navigate a better path forward. That’s true for the complex issue of plastics. Look around, and you’ll find plastic in close proximity: your cellphone case, the toys children play with, the stapler in the drawer, the container we carried our lunch in. The plastic seems endless. And in the U.S., it practically is.
According to Our World Data, America consumes significantly more plastic per capita than the most populated countries in the world: nearly three times as much as China and 10 times as much as India. Plastic’s versatility, to be molded into just about any shape imaginable, makes it both useful and addictive. We are economically and culturally dependent on plastic. This did not happen overnight.
Before plastics, which is hard to imagine, the things we produced were made with materials such as wood, ivory, glass and iron. These had obvious limitations in their availability, malleability and costs. With a growing population that was shifting from an agricultural way of life to a consumer one, these materials could no longer meet the need. The development of plastics provided an answer.
In the mid-20th century, during World War II, plastic production took hold. New plastic technology was used to make all manner of wartime supplies, from combs for soldiers to helmet liners. During this time, plastic production nearly quadrupled, increasing from 213 million pounds in 1939 to 818 million pounds in 1945.
So what happened to all the manufacturing when the demand for helmet liners stopped? The industry shifted to household appliances, personal products, tools, office supplies and an endless number of things we never even knew we needed. In short time, we couldn’t imagine how we once lived without all these things.
This affordable supply of plastic goods found a public ready to embrace modern comforts after many years of war and hardship. Cheaper, mass-produced products allowed for a leveling of the social playing field by making once luxury items accessible to many.
Since then, we have all seen how plastic helps us achieve amazing things, from walking with prosthetics, to exploring space with robotics. Plastic keeps us safe in the cars we drive and is found in the protective equipment essential in our current pandemic. So what is this magical material made of? The earliest plastics were made from plants, but the majority of plastics ever produced are derived from oil and gas.
Why haven’t we found a more sustainable alternative? A recent report by NPR and PBS Frontline revealed that, in the face of public outcry on plastic waste, oil and gas officials launched aggressive recycling initiatives while concealing well-known challenges to the reusable viability of the plastics they produced. In short, they quelled pollution concerns by building false recycling hopes.
This history of deceptive practices and documents dates to the 1970s. And current data shows that the oil and gas industry intends to continue down this path.
With renewable energy decreasing the demand for fuel, the oil and gas industry is shifting its attention and resources to accelerate plastic production. According to the International Energy Agency, 14% of petrochemicals are used to create plastics. By 2050, that number is projected to hit 50%.
We are once again at a crossroad, and we must choose wisely how to produce the things we need. Plastics provided advancement and access at a time when we needed it, yet its continued production is simply not sustainable. We need to produce goods without the use of oil and gas if we desire a livable planet. It’s time to prioritize all people, rather than a privileged few, and protect the planet and the resources we share.
As a wealthy, high-consuming nation, we must lead and find solutions to break our dependence on plastic. This means we must hold responsible the people we elect and the companies that contribute to our crippling cycle of plastic consumption. We can’t change the past, but we can move forward to not repeat mistakes history has shown us.
“Ask Eartha Steward” is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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