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War Against or Truce with Plastics?

War Against or Truce with Plastics?

A Little History

The first mention of plastic was a cellulose based product developed by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869. A formula using camphor and cotton cellulose to create a product durable and resistant enough to replace elephant ivory and tortoise shell. This was a boon for the ‘animal protectionists’ of that era. I am certain most pachyderm and large shelled amphibians were also quite thankful. Replacing billiard balls and tortoise shell eyewear with this new synthetic polymer is an example of technology to the rescue of these abused creatures.

John Wesley Hyatt
Leo Hendrik Baekeland

Later, in 1907,Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite. This miracle product took the idea of polymers another step further. Using abundant carbon-based fossil fuels, it was possible to molded into almost any shape. Much more suited for industrial production than cellulose.

Soon after came the birth of endless chemical companies trying to get in on the bottom floor of this new industry. A plethora of new plastics flooded the market. Many being invented for their own sake rather than a particular need.

World War II brought about the innovation of nylon, invented by Wallace Carothers in 1935 as a synthetic silk. Plexiglass was also used to shore up demand for scarce natural resources. Plastics were providing a solution for many aircraft parts, parachutes, ropes, body armor, helmet liners and much more. During the Second World War plastics usage increased by 300%.

Wallace Carothers

The Problem

Some observers thought that plastics gave a utopian vision of the future. Plastic was replacing many natural resources with a safe, inexpensive and sanitary product; a need that was present in most markets. This enthusiasm was misplaced as the overuse of plastics became somewhat of a symbol of cheap conformity and superficiality.

Despite the mistrust we may have towards the plastics industry, we must admit that plastics are essential for modern life. They are responsible for the production of many essential items such as computers, cell phones, bio-medical and hospital equipment. Scientists are also continuously trying to improve plastic safety and sustainability. Imagine a biodegradable plastic!

Plastics reputation fell further in the 1970s and 1980s as our anxiety about waste increased. It was the plastics industry that offered municipalities the option of recycling. This was a laudable initiative that did not live up to the hype as most plastic containers end up in landfills. Many are concerned with the threat to human health. Concern focuses on additives such as bisphenol A (BPA) that is used to make plastics more durable, supple and transparent. The worry is that they may leach out into our food chain and drinking water.

The Solutions

The solutions range from a total ban to intelligent use. A total ban does not seem plausible; leaning towards sensible alternatives may be the right direction. There are always alternatives for certain uses of plastic. Reusable items are the mainstay. Trying to stay away from single use, throw away plastics is a must. We can do our part, but this is a global problem that needs a global solution.

On a grand scale we have Boyan Slat a young Dutch entrepreneur who has taken on the task of removing the Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean somewhere between California and Japan. This is a monumental travail as the patch itself is not stable and moves from one area to another. If that is not enough, it is not one patch but rather several that are in continual motion and, contrary to urban legend, cannot be seen from space. The worst part of the problem is not the observable plastic items like bottles, bags and straws but rather the minute plastic particles that are sometimes microscopically small and extremely difficult to discern, let alone clean up.

Boyan Slat

Many countries are conscientious enough to take up new measures that will ensure some sort of positive result. Most of us are willing to participate for a good cause especially if it guarantees results. However good intentions are not enough; we need good solutions too. Among these are some of the following common-sense rules to help the cause…

  • Remove disposable plastics from your life
  • Stop buying bottled water
  • Avoid using microbeads
  • Recycle
  • Buy upcycled and re-useable products
  • Promote any program that helps educate about the problem

For any goal to succeed, most people must be on board. That means not only you and me but peoples from countries that abuse the production of cheap, single use, petroleum-based plastics. The worst offenders can be seen here. This is not an attempt to exonerate nor endict anyone. This is an attempt to include everyone. We can all benefit, but we all must participate. A few minor behavioral changes and voilà we have a viable solution.

Intelligent use rather than a total ban and everyone do your part to reduce the production of single-use plastics.

Check out some of these fair-trade products that can help. Remember every little bit helps...

Addendum

This is a video concerning a new Japanese discovery. Nature may have found a way of reabsorbing certain types of plastics. Science to the rescue? Well worth a watch...

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