Plastics: Environmental Saviour or Assassin?

What is it about plastics? They pervade every aspect of modern life, but what do we actually know about them? Can’t live with them, can’t live without them and this is the conundrum that we are currently facing. They’ve certainly had a roller-coaster of a ride in terms of PR.

The first synthetic polymer was invented exactly 150 years ago, after a New York firm offered $10,000 to anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory, way back in 1869. They were disturbed by the increasing slaughter of elephants just to make billiard balls and piano keys.

The winner, John Wesley Hyatt, combined cellulose from cotton fibre with camphor and created the first plastic that could be moulded into a variety of shapes. This first incarnation was used to imitate natural substances such as tortoiseshell, horn, ivory and even cotton.

When they first appeared, plastics were heralded as the saviour of the environment – preserving the planet’s supply of wood, metal, stone and saving countless animals hunted for bone, tusk and shell.

Bakelite was the first fully synthetic plastic and it was used to help make electricity widespread all across the world, then it did the same with the telephone. During WWII plastics evolved into Nylon for parachutes and ultimately stockings, Plexi-Glass was a safe substitution for glass and so the list went on.

The impact of plastics in society was revolutionary, without them most possessions would be too expensive for anyone but the richest person. Replacing natural materials has made them cheaper, lighter, stronger and safer. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it was plastics that facilitated the quantum leap forward in the fields of technology, transport, medicine, communication and leisure throughout the 20th century.

So when did it all start to go wrong? By the sixties, plastic had become slang for cheap, fake or superficial. Environmental issues were at the heart of hippie culture, a younger generation who were alarmed by oil-spills, pesticides and the well-being of Mother Earth. For the first time in history, people were starting to have concerns about plastic.

The downside of being cheap to mass produce is that it encourages a disposable mentality and with plastics there is no accountability for the end product. Our global population has literally doubled over the last fifty years, which is quite a step up from the previous 100,000 years – catering for the needs of all these extra humans in such a short space of time has also encouraged an explosion in production.

The consequences have finally permeated the mainstream consciousness, through programmes like Blue Planet and social media campaigns. Aside from mountains of plastic waste in landfill and oceans of carrier bags and water-bottles, we now know that it is also creeping up the food chain and it can end up in our system. Reports of micro-plastics and PBT compounds ending up in fish that we eat, or the leaching of chemicals such as phthalates from food and drinks containers.

Most people are doing their bit on a household level and there is a huge media push on cleaning up the oceans. It’s also encouraging to see the younger generations taking it seriously as part of the whole climate change awareness. But what about the manufacturers and how do we continue to provide all of these material possessions for 7 billion people and rising?

The good news is that due to the excellent work by environmentalists, there are now a whole raft of regulations being legislated by governments around the world and more importantly a genuine desire from scientists and entrepreneurs to help solve the problem. The bulk of micro-plastics in the ocean isn’t from make-up and face scrubs, it’s from larger items that have been eroded but not eliminated. The plastics that leach harmful chemicals have been identified and they will undoubtedly be avoided in the future.

The key is to change the public’s perception of plastic, to that of a valuable and recyclable raw material. It was why it was invented in the first place – to be the ultimate environmentally friendly material. You make one thing, use it over and over, then when you’re done, make it into something else. It doesn’t require much energy and the designs are only limited by your imagination.

If this can be done, then it will much easier to implement effective recycling processes. A simple cash reward on your household plastics collection would help – you should be able to sell it back to the plastics industry as raw material. There are already plenty of companies buying corporate waste, so why not on a domestic level?

Long-term, the solution looks to come full-circle, all the way back to John Wesley Hyatt. The future may well be bio-plastics, using natural polymers to create a plastic that is completely biodegradable. No specialist composting machines required and no harmful chemical by-products.

In the meantime, it’s down to companies like Cableflor to lead the way in recycling plastics to create useful solutions for notoriously wasteful industries, such as Events and Exhibitions. We will make your bespoke flooring and then offer you a reward for letting us recycle it into another beautiful floor. We walk like we talk, preferably on gloriously illuminated and custom coloured walkways.