This is the first in a series of four short articles by Fr Sean Mc Donagh, ecologist and environmentalist on a challenge that needs a response from us all.
Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC
Though it is a relatively new product, plastic is present all around us, sometimes for good, but more often, as toxic waste. Its uses are many and varied. It insulates electric wires and makes them safe. Most light switches and plugs are made of plastic and it is also used to make pipes that transport our drinking water and sewage. Babies’ bottles, toothpaste, tooth brushes and shampoo bottles are also made from plastics. In our hospitals, plastic is used to carry human blood and deliver antibiotics intravenously. Toilet seats are made from plastic and toilet paper is wrapped in plastic. In our wardrobes you will find a number of clothes items that are made from plastic. Billions of water bottles and other liquids are now manufactured from plastic. In the supermarket many, items, such as meat and fish, are displayed in plastic containers and covered with plastic-.rapping. At the fruit and vegetable counter most of the fruit and vegetables on display are packed in plastic bags. In the kitchen, food is covered with clingfilm so that it is not contaminated. Most sauce-bottles are made of plastic.
There would be chaos at the checkout desk, if a customer decided to take all the items packed in plastic which they had purchased and left the plastic behind in the shop. In many parts of the world, shoppers are given free plastic bags. For both the shop owner and the public, this single use of a plastic bag is thought to facilitate shopping. But the cost of so much plastic on land, in rivers and in the oceans is horrendous as we will see in the next articles.
The biro I write a letter with is made of plastic. It too will be thrown out once the ink is used up. A large part of the computer in front of me is made of plastic. If I take a long-distance flight, the food containers and cutlery which I will use just once, are made of plastic. I receive two newspapers each week, The Universe and The New Scientist. Both publications are wrapped in a plastic envelope which when removed is discarded. In the past the envelope was made of paper.
The problem with plastic is that it stays around for a very long time. This is why it is estimated that there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating on the surface of the world’s oceans. Almost 279 billion tonnes of plastic is created each year. More than 40 percent of plastic, including shopping bags and all kinds of containers are used once and then are discarded. Plastic is strewn right across the world, even in the Arctic. Many feel that the problems with plastic are almost as serious as the problem of climate change.
But plastic was looked on very favourably when it was first created towards the middle of the 19th century. It is a polymer which is made up of a long chain of molecules. A natural polymer, cellulose, makes up the cell wall in plants. Some synthetic polymers are made of substances similar to cellulose. Most plastic, however, is made of carbon atoms which come from petroleum. It is the length of the chain and the pattern in which they are arrayed which make the polymers strong and lightweight. .
The first synthetic polymer was created by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869. It was inspired by an offering of $10, 000 made by a New York business to anyone who could invent a substitute for ivory. At that point in the 19th century, billiards was becoming a popular indoor sport in cities and towns in Europe and in the United States. The only way one could get the extra ivory needed for the expanding sport was by killing elephants. By treating cellulose, derived from cotton fibre, with camphor, Hyatt, discovered plastic. This new product could be shaped in a variety of ways and made to imitate ivory. The creation of plastic was seen as a way of protecting wild elephants and other creatures.
The first synthetic plastic which did not contain any natural molecules was invented by Leo Baekeland in 1907. A major impetus in the growth of the plastic industry in the United States was World War II. During those few years the industry grew by 300 percent. Next week I will look at the effects of plastic across the world.