Want to challenge yourself? Try not touching anything made of plastic for a whole day.
There’s a good chance you slept on a mattress with plastic in it last night. You were woken up by the alarm clock on your smartphone, about half of which is made of plastic. You pulled the charger out of the plug socket without being electrocuted because all the electricity in your house is enclosed in a layer of protective plastic.
First things first: have a shower, brush your teeth, get a cup of coffee. That showerhead contains plastic, and the shower hose is made of plastic, just like the shower curtain. The water drains away through PVC pipes. Your toothbrush might be made of bamboo, but the bristles are nylon. And that’s plastic. Your coffee-maker – whether it’s a Nespresso, French press or percolator – contains plastic parts.
It’s raining outside, but luckily you have a waterproof raincoat. Made of polyester, a kind of plastic. And whatever form of transport you’re going to take, just under 6% of it consists of plastic.
Surprised? Imagine you’re a nurse, on your way to work at the hospital. Of every four items you touch there, at least one of them is largely made of plastic. And in times of coronavirus, that amount has only increased.
A plastic-free life is simply impossible. It’s for good reason our era is called the Plastic Age.
We’re producing about 400 million tonnes of plastic per year. And much of this disappears in places where it shouldn’t, only to finally end up in the plastic soup. No other material has such a clear association with a certain kind of behaviour: mindlessly throwing away.
Plastic is a symbol of our society’s throwaway mentality.
How did this happen? And can we still change this?
What we talk about when we talk about plastic
“Plastic” is an inaccurate term because it refers not so much to the material but to one specific property: it is literally plastic, mouldable. Heating makes this material malleable, after which you can shape it in a mould. There are many other materials this applies to – glass, iron, bronze, even concrete is initially fluid and malleable – but it’s only in the case of plastic that this characteristic has become its hallmark. The word has become synonymous with the material, which is in fact a collection of synthetic polymers.
The story of the first plastic material starts simply enough: with a billiard ball. In 1863, the famous Irish billiard player Michael Phelan offered a prize of $10,000 – which would be about $200,000 today – to anyone who could come up with an alternative for ivory. Until then, that is what billiard balls were made of, and because the game was becoming more and more popular, there would soon be no elephants left if someone didn’t come up with an alternative quickly.
After a few failed attempts in a shed in Albany, New York, the brothers John and Isaiah Hyatt applied for a patent for celluloid: the first plastic. John was lauded for this invention by The Society of Chemical Industry in 1914, which is remarkable because he never trained as a chemist. In his words of thanks, John said he would most likely never have managed if he had known how dangerous it was.
The brothers used camphor for their billiard balls, which is highly flammable and led to the occasional small explosion when one ball hit another.
For this reason, billiard balls were not permanently replaced by celluloid. And the Hyatts never received their money from Phelan because other inventors were working on a comparable material in England. A legal battle ensued that went as far as the US Supreme Court, which determined that no one would get exclusive rights to the material, and that everyone could produce plastic.
The first real plastic – Bakelite – wasn’t invented until 1910. Discovered in the US by the Belgian Leo Baekeland, Bakelite is completely synthetic, unlike celluloid, which is a bioplastic. Bakelite is made of – hold on to your hat – polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride. That’ll win you a Scrabble game or two.
This was the first plastic produced on a large scale by the petrochemical industry. According to a promotional folder of the General Bakelite Company, which was set up by Baekeland, it was “The Material of a Thousand Uses”, and in order to emphasise this, the company used the infinity symbol as its logo. Bakelite became especially well known thanks to the iconic black Bakelite telephones and gramophone records. The first commercial item made of Bakelite stayed close to its fossil origins, however: it was a Rolls Royce gear knob.
The year was 1916, and although the real plastic boom was yet to come – in the 50s – the Plastic Age had officially begun. Leo Baekeland, who had already been featured on the cover of Time in 1924, was later called the father of plastic in that same magazine.
Big steps followed in the 1930s. Plastic was the first industry where systematic investments in research and development (R&D) by the business world played an important role. Big players in the US and European chemical industry dedicated themselves to the development of plastics. US DuPont, IG Farben, Imperial Chemical Industries – and let’s not forget, DOW chemicals: still one of the biggest chemical companies today.
This has led to the ubiquitous presence of plastic in our daily lives. There’s cellophane in the form of sticky tape, we have polystyrene foam, we use nylon to brush our teeth, keep our legs warm (tights) and hang from our climbing ropes. Neoprene keeps us warm – we use it for wetsuits, for instance, and not a day goes by without you touching polyethylene (PE): plastic bags, bottles, packaging, and so on.
Plastic is the chameleon of materials. It’s everywhere, in many different forms. It is so ubiquitous, in fact, that Vaclav Smil – materials expert par excellence – doesn’t even try to list all the types and applications. Luckily, there’s no need: to understand the impact of plastic, it is enough to look at the “big three” types of plastic.
Polyethylene, polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride
Plastics can be divided into two groups: thermoplastics and thermosets. The first group can be reheated and remoulded, while the second stays solid once it has been moulded into a particular form. Bakelite is a thermoset, but your surfboard or PUR foam are too, for instance. The majority of plastics produced, about 80%, consists of thermoplastics. We’ll follow that line.
Within the group of thermoplastics, there are three types of plastic that form the bulk of our plastic production: polyethylene, polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride (PE, PP and PVC). Together, they account for approximately 69% of our worldwide plastic output. These types of plastics are mostly used to make packaging material (PE and PP) and building materials such as pipes and cable sheaths (PVC).
The popularity of the material is illustrated by the global production growth curve for all plastics, which is unparalleled by any other material. It went from two million tonnes in 1950 to 380m tonnes in 2018, which is an average growth of 8.4% per year. As with many materials, China is the leader of the pack, producing 30% of the total. Europe and North America are next with, respectively, 17% and 18%. Worldwide, this is a market valued at nearly €500bn – and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. In Europe alone, it accounts for 1.6m jobs.
What this production costs us in terms of energy and CO2 emissions is hard to estimate. Because of the diversity of types of plastic, it’s hard to find reliable, comprehensive data for the plastic industry. That it’s bad for the environment is beyond dispute. Plastic is one of the cornerstones of the fossil industry. Not so much because of the amount of fossil fuels used – that’s actually not so high – but because of how indispensable plastic is in our society.
At least 14% of oil and natural gas production goes towards petrochemistry, but this also includes ammonia production – the primary ingredient of synthetic fertiliser. An estimated 4-5% of all fossil raw materials are used for the production of all sorts of plastic.
In terms of CO2 emissions, only the production of cement and iron and steel create more pollution than petrochemistry. Meanwhile, the petrochemical industry is the biggest energy consumer. According to conservative estimates, the plastic industry emitted 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 in 2015; this is just under 4% of the global total for that year.
To put this in perspective: Shell is currently building a petrochemical complex in the US state of Pennsylvania to make plastic out of ethylene. This single factory will emit up to 2.25m tonnes of CO2 per year, which is equivalent to 400,000 new cars. And that’s only one of the 300 (!) new petrochemical building projects in the US.
These numbers are sobering. And yet, production is not the biggest problem with plastic.
Plastic differs from the other materials I have discussed in this series. For concrete and steel, the problem lies at the beginning of the life cycle: producing it is extremely polluting. This shifted with synthetic fertiliser: the production causes pollution, but it is the use of fertilisers that is especially problematic. With plastic, the pollution occurs even a step later: it is especially problematic because of the way we get rid of it.
This pollution has been mapped painstakingly. In 10 years’ time, cleaning up plastic waste has become a booming industry, spearheaded by The Ocean Cleanup. One of the consequences is that we seem to be suffering from mass plastic phobia nowadays.
That is not to say that plastic pollution isn’t a serious problem. We are all familiar with the alarming predictions: in 2050 our oceans will contain more plastic than fish – see also the iconic photo of the seahorse with the cotton bud. Even if we do take action, we must count on 710m tonnes of plastic waste in 2040.
A million plastic bottles are sold per minute, and the majority are not recycled. And that’s not even taking into account microplastics, of which there are at least 500 times more in the environment than there are stars in the Milky Way, and we barely know the consequences of this yet. Plastic pollution is so widespread that archaeologists and geologists consider (micro)plastics as a so-called stratigraphic marker for the anthropocene.
But still, what we need to ask ourselves is whether our current mania for cleanup addresses the actual problem.
Plastic = throwaway
Plastic has become synonymous with throwing away. So much so that plastic is held responsible for our throwaway mentality. And the piece of material culture that has become emblematic in that story is the plastic bag. We see it as representative of our sins against nature.
Sten Gustav Thulin would have been astounded by this.
Thulin, a Swedish engineer, was the inventor of the plastic bag. He came up with it in 1959 for – no, your eyes are not deceiving you – environmental reasons. The widespread use of paper bags up to that point was causing deforestation, and for Thulin, plastic bags were the perfect alternative – as long as you reused them for years to come.
“To my dad, the idea that people would simply throw these [plastic bags] away would be bizarre,” his son said in an interview with The Independent.
We are so collectively angry with the plastic bag that we forget what a fantastic invention it actually is: a waterproof, reusable, lightweight bag that can carry more than 1,000 times its own weight and can still be folded up so small that it fits in your pocket.
How is it possible that a fantastic design like this, intended as a valuable object to be reused, has turned into the most worthless item we can think of, thus also becoming a symbol of our throwaway mentality?
To understand this, we must first know more about how to look at a plastic bag.
A technical and cultural analysis
There are two ways of understanding things: through a technical or cultural analysis. A technical analysis maps out what objects are made of, how much energy and emissions it takes to make a product, transport it, use it, and recycle or destroy it. Researchers call this a life cycle assessment (LCA). A cultural analysis looks at what we do with objects and what they mean to us.
The plastic bag has been the subject of many life cycle assessments. One of the most recent ones, a Danish study from 2018, went viral because it turned out that plastic bags are the least polluting option for transporting groceries. You would have to use a bag made of organic cotton at least 20,000 times before it is a more sustainable alternative for a single use plastic bag. However, if you delve further into the study, there are some things to be said about it, according to Stefano Cucurachi, an industrial ecologist at Leiden University.
“Each analysis begins with determining the function of the product you’re studying,” says Cucurachi. That a plastic bag is meant for carrying groceries is obvious, but you need to quantify this to work with it. And studies vary greatly when it comes to how many kilos of groceries you can fit and carry in a plastic bag.
The biggest problem with this study – and an earlier one – is that the impact of plastic pollution isn’t taken into account – simply because there is no method available yet to determine the environmental impact of plastic pollution. But even more importantly, this kind of purely technical study – with assumptions about how many litres or kilos you can fit into a plastic bag in comparison to non-plastic alternatives – doesn’t take into account how we actually use plastic bags and why this brilliant invention is considered worthless.
So, a cultural analysis it is. Leave this to an archaeologist.
Why what you do with an object matters
Why do some objects – a wedding ring, for instance – carry an enormous amount of meaning, while we barely pay attention to others?
In part, that has to do with the biography of objects. That explains, for instance, why a second-hand Fender Stratocaster guitar can be sold for $3,975,000 while you can get practically the same one on Ebay for under $1,000. The first one is The Black Strat, a guitar with a Wikipedia page, the guitar Dave Gilmour used to record all the important Pink Floyd albums. That extra $3,974,000 doesn’t buy you a guitar; it buys you the collective value of years of use. You’re buying a biography.
And this is how objects can also have a cultural biography – the unwritten cultural rules that determine how we treat certain objects. This cultural biography means we realise that finding a wedding ring at a charity shop probably implies a tragic story. Not only that, but the fact that it has been sold has degraded a meaningful, valuable object to a mere piece of gold, with nothing but material value.
“Biographies of things can make salient what might otherwise remain obscure.”
Back to our plastic bag.
A cultural biography of plastic
The cultural biography of a plastic bag – and pretty much any simple plastic packaging – is paltry. It doesn’t possess any value whatsoever – either commercially or biographically. And this is part of the problem.
Where nearly all companies do their best to make their products valuable, the plastic industry has taken the opposite approach. Plastic is nothing. It needs to be invisible, often literally, even. It was consciously designed so that it is virtually impossible to use it for anything else, making you want to throw it away as quickly as possible.
After plasticity, it is the most characteristic feature of plastic: it is “made to be wasted”.
That “disposability” of plastic is a conscious choice. The worthlessness of plastic is even praised as a positive quality, and has been for decades: see for instance this article by Lloyd Stouffer, editor of the US specialist journal Modern Packaging, which was presented in 1963, during the National Plastic Congress in Chicago:
“The happy day has arrived when nobody any longer considers the plastics package too good to throw away.”
To achieve that, the material costs were kept as low as possible, to tempt supermarkets to switch to plastic bags. Stouffer also watched developments in Europe with interest: “The European countries are moving in one step from a tradition of returnable containers to throwaways.” To make plastic a throwaway product, you had to make people go against tradition. And that wasn’t easy.
Initially, consumers in the US weren’t into plastic bags instead of paper at all. Plastic bags – they were for those annoying progressive urbanites who did their groceries on foot and had to carry all those bags. At least paper bags of groceries would stay upright in the car.
But it is not only the material that has plasticity – our behaviour can be moulded too, which the plastic industry knows all too well. We have been taught to throw things away. Offering free plastic bags was part of that: free is worthless.
For the same reason, it is the government’s responsibility to take action here.
While the business world shamelessly sets out to manipulate our behaviour, governments are very hesitant to take action in this area, citing the liberal credo that people must be trusted to make correct, well-considered decisions themselves, and that the market and industry must be free to ensure as much prosperity for everyone as possible. Political philosopher Matthew Crawford doesn’t beat about the bush when it comes to this kind of unregulated capitalism: “To capital, our moral squeamishness about being ‘judgemental’ smells like opportunity.”
A quick fix: the plastic bag as a gift
This is the problem of the plastic bag: as consumers we have been taught to see what is essentially a valuable, reusable and useful product as a worthless, easily replaceable product.
Many see a ban on (free) plastic bags, which many countries have now imposed, as the solution. But simple solutions go with simple problems, and this isn’t a simple problem.
Stefano Cucurachi, who studies the effects of the ban in the Netherlands, says, “A ban doesn’t end demand. People still need something to carry their shopping in. The decrease in plastic bags has led to an increase in paper bags, for instance. And that’s not necessarily better. It’s not about the material. It’s about what you do with it.”
And yet, a ban does work. In the Netherlands a report boasts that the ban led to 80% fewer plastic bags in 2015, and thus less plastic waste.
That might be true, but here, too, the reality turns out to be more complex.
According to Cucurachi, part of that gain is in turn negated by a conspicuous increase in the use of plastic garbage bags. Apparently, many of those free bags were reused as garbage bags. The same effect was observed in California, where the ban led to an 18m kilo decrease in plastic bags, but there was also a five million kilo increase in garbage bags. Another indication that it’s crucial to look at what we actually do with objects, rather than just consider their intended function.
How to add value to something?
What is the actual effect of charging, say, 25 cents for a bag?
That 25 cents lifts the plastic bag from its invisible existence as an ephemeral, free (worthless!), meaningless piece of throwaway material. In deciding to charge for plastic bags, the government has earmarked it culturally as a commodity. The plastic bag has value now, even if it’s only 25 cents. That helps … a little.
But to ensure that people become more conscious of their dealings with plastic bags, more value must be ascribed to them – a different kind of value.
One of the best ways to do this is by giving the object as a present. This turns a commodity into a gift, which ensures that both the giver and receiver ascribe emotional value to it. A gift from a good friend or partner is a material translation of that relationship and even contributes to its establishment. That’s why many people have so much trouble selling or giving away a present.
And that’s exactly what we want to achieve. Because every time you reuse a bag, you reduce its environmental impact.
So this year, give your friends or partner a foldable polyester bag for Christmas. Get one in their favourite colour, and have a photo of a beloved pet or quote printed on it, or a cute picture of the two of you. This provides a simple bag with a biography, and that’s the most effective way of making people treat their stuff in a more conscious and sustainable manner.
Plastic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Better to care about it then, instead of abhorring it.
Translated from the Dutch by Hannah Kousbroek.