It’s hard to think of a material more prolific than plastic. The keys on my keyboard, carrier bags, ballpoint pens, the remote control for the TV and most car interiors are made almost entirely from plastic. The world gets through nearly 300 million tonnes of the stuff every year which has environmentalists up in arms. After all, the plastic we make is so resilient that it doesn’t tend to conveniently rot away in landfill sites.
It’s a very real problem. Roughly half a trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In the UK, we use roughly 15 million plastic bottles each and every day and when you think that it takes 450 years for just one plastic bottle to break down, at any one time – that’s nearly 4.5 trillion bottles rotting away unless we recycle or burn them.
Our appetite for plastic is showing no signs of slowing with annual growth running at about 5% annually. Plastics are made from polymers – immensely complex molecules that link together hundreds of thousands of molecule structures known as monomers. The complex structure is the key to plastic’s versatility. It is flexible enough to be made into almost any shape and it is durable enough to have the strength for multiple applications.
Plastic began in the 1850s when a British man, Alexander Parkes began experimenting with organic cellulose and various different solvents before coming up with the very first plastic, christened “Parkestine”, which was on show at the Great Exhibition in London in 1962. Unfortunately, his product was flawed, it was highly flammable which limited applications somewhat.
Development of the substance continued with an American coming up with Bakelite in the early 1900s. A Swiss chemist, Jacques E. Brandenberger then came up with cellophane by mixing viscose in an acid bath. The word cellophane was voted the third most beautiful word in the English language (after mother and memory) in 1940. I don’t think it would rank quite so highly today.
I can’t help feeling that plastic is both a blessing and a curse. The material is so damned useful that it is absolutely ubiquitous. At the same time, the stuff is so hard to dispose of that every single piece causes us long-term headaches. If you throw away everything in your house that contains plastic, it’s unlikely you’d have much left.
Alternatives are slowly becoming available and not before time. Traditional plastics are highly reliant on petrochemicals whilst the newer, greener alternatives use materials such as corn starch and wood. The quicker we adopt such materials, the quicker we can have our cake and eat it (or maybe store it in an eco-friendly Tupperware container).