Have you ever had an idea that sounded good and ended up being terrible? Maybe carrying too many groceries at once, spilling your coffee, or even my first marriage. But if you are lucky, your good but terrible idea won’t affect many people other than yourself.
Unfortunately for men like John Wesley Hyatt and Leo Baekeland, their good ideas had catastrophic consequences. In 1869, Hyatt tried to win a $10,000 prize to find a substitute for ivory. His combination of cotton fiber and camphor created a polymer that could substitute for natural resources. His invention was considered the savior of the elephant and the tortoise. Later on, in 1907, Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic polymer to help his creation, Bakelite, which was used for everything from switches and electrical appliances to frying pans and more. World War II caused global shortages of many natural resources; by then, plastics were ready to fill in the gaps.
These advances seemed optimistic and pointed to a utopian future where materials were readily available, safe, and cheap. But it didn’t take long for the vast commercialization of plastics to turn ugly. Plastic waste began to be observed in the ocean in the 1960s, raising concerns about the environmental impact that has proven to be more catastrophic than Hyatt and Baekeland could have ever imagined. One only has to look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where ocean currents have collected a pile of plastic garbage roughly the size of Texas (that’s BIG), to see the scale of the damage done.
But one must think smaller — much smaller — to comprehend the effect of single-use plastics on the environment. Richard Thompson, a British marine biologist, coined the term “microplastic” in 2004 to describe the phenomenon of tiny, often microscopic particles of plastic discovered in ocean ecosystems. Today the term officially refers to any plastic particle smaller than 5 millimeters, as established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Microplastics can come from primary and secondary sources: primary sources created with the intent of using small plastic particles, such as exfoliating face washes and synthetic clothing, and secondary sources, where something like a plastic water bottle or garden cover slowly breaks into smaller pieces over time. Microplastics have been discovered on the ocean floor, on pristine beaches, in the earth’s atmosphere, and on the top of Mount Everest. According to some estimates, we may be ingesting as much as a credit card’s worth of plastic yearly. The poison is in the dose, however. There is little evidence that our daily plastic consumption is likely to cause human harm. But the environmental impact on ocean species is much more concerning, along with the long-term effects of exponential growth on oceanic habitats.
Because plastic can break down into such microscopic particles, small fish and bottom feeders sometimes eat them. In turn, these fish get eaten by larger fish and predators, whose exposure grows with every organism they consume. That works its way up the food chain until we see species affected by reproductive issues, physiological stress, and damage to their ecosystem. We already see microplastic pollution in small Chinese farms resulting in lower crop yields and damaged root systems.
No individual will be able to change our current trajectory all by themselves. Large food manufacturers must be pressured and legislated into making their materials easier to recycle. Still, we can take steps to help minimize our own plastic usage and contribution to this environmental problem. It is imperitive to note that expecting everyone to adopt an utterly plastic-free lifestyle is deeply ableist and simply not possible for everyone. You can help by adopting one or more of the following habits within the realm of what is feasible for your individual situation:
- Switch to a stainless steel water bottle
- Shop as plastic-free as you can
- Keep a glass straw in your car
- Buy from companies that are actively working to reduce waste
- Bring reusable containers with you when eating out to avoid takeout containers
- Use cloth diapers for your babies IF it makes sense for your situation
- Make your food from scratch (versus pre-packaged)
- Use bar soap, shampoo bars, and toothpaste tablets
- Make cleaning products or buy from companies that sell concentrate for glass bottles
- Choose natural clothing products over synthetic ones (hemp, bamboo, and linen are best, while cotton uses a ton of water to produce)
Revolutionary and unexpected ideas are beginning to brighten the future, such as an AI-developed enzyme that eats plastic. We need significant changes and a cultural revolution to treat our planet better if we want to keep it around. In the meantime, we can start now with a few simple moves to reduce our plastic waste.