Mural by Rosemarie Schinzler. ‘Wachsen Lassen’ – ‘Let Grow’. Photo: Killian Kelly

Plastic and Society; A Love-Hate Relationship

On the East Side of the Berlin wall, there once stood a symbolic green plant sprouting from a mural (seen above), accompanied by the words ‘Wachsen lassen’, meaning Let Grow. Today, in the plant’s absence, sits a display of single-use water bottles, fast food containers, disposable coffee cups and other plastics, reflecting an all too familiar scene.

Our inability to manage plastics has resulted in millions of tonnes of plastic entering our oceans every year. An estimated 700 species are threatened due to this pollution. Once in the ocean, plastic slowly breaks down into tiny particles called microplastics that are consumed by plankton, fish, birds, whales and eventually people. A groundbreaking report by the World Economic Forum ‘The New Plastic Economy,’ predicted that ton for ton, there will be more plastic in the ocean than our fish by the year 2050.

If the footage from BBC’s Blue Planet II (YouTube), accompanied by a despondent David Attenborough’s plea for change wasn’t enough to make you reconsider our relationship with plastics, perhaps the fact that the plastic is breaking down and re-entering the food chain, finding its way back to our dinner plates might? Our current use of plastics for the sake of convenience and profit has come at the peril of our oceans’, marine animals, birds, food, water and air quality. With all that said, the production of the material is still set to quadruple by the year 2050.

It feels as though we have arrived at a point where we can no longer live with it, nor without it. Our problems with plastic seemed to have risen in tandem with our dependencies upon it. Thankfully, though long overdue, people are finally understanding the gravity of the situation. Positive signs are appearing across the globe, as people become more informed and are reevaluating their disposable relationship with plastics. However, as always, more needs to be done. Below is a brief history of how this love-hate relationship all began.

A short history of plastic

1862 – 1907

Alexander Parkes invented the first known plastic – Parkesine, in 1862 using the cell walls of plants. Nearly half a century later, in 1907, a Belgian man named Leo Baekeland went a step further, inventing bakelite; the first ever wholly synthetic and moldable form of plastic. Bakelite was used for basic kitchen and household utensils such as doorknobs, handles, buttons, clocks, radios, and telephone casings. The creation of plastics, and in particular, Bakelite, was the beginning of something much bigger than anyone could have imagined.

1916 – 1960

People began experimenting with what plastic was capable of. The first plastic surgery took place in 1916 on an injured soldier named Walter Yeo, who suffered burns to his face during World War 1. However, it wasn’t until after World War 2 that plastic’s true global potential would be recognised. With another world war having passed, the chemical industry found itself in a much stronger position. The following decades would see the entire globe undergo an abrupt abandonment of natural materials such as glass, wood, leather, stone, and bone, in favour of the much cheaper, longer lasting versatile synthetic. Manufacturers and retailers worldwide went wild, and our material culture underwent a global transformation like no other. We were massively unprepared.

Jacques-Yves-Cousteau (1910 – 1997)

One man who saw the early signs of how unprepared society was for such a transition was Jacques-Yves-Cousteau. Widely known throughout the 20th century as a pioneer in oceanography, he invented the first ever scuba diving gear and single-handedly kick-started the exploration and documentation of the world oceans. He provided new insight into what lies beneath the ocean surface to people across the world. Having discovered the threat plastic posed to our wildlife and ecosystems he relentlessly made efforts to spread the message.

     “The problem we are facing today is something that has been the main concern of all the great civilisations in the past: the production, storage, and shipping of goods. During the last century, the way we chose to do it was not sustainable”. – Jacques Cousteau

By the 1960’s, plastic shopping bags began replacing the original paper bags. Today, production of plastic bags and other products have skyrocketed. Currently, 1 million plastic shopping bags are used each minute, equating to roughly 500 billion plastic bags every year. The fact that there are only 7.6 billion people across the globe 500 billion plastics bags being used each year show’s the highly wasteful and disposable position society has found itself in. We have all, at some stage been guilty of having a plastic bag stuffed full of other plastic bags sitting unused beneath the kitchen sink.

In defense of plastic?

No doubt if Cousteau were alive today, he’d be baffled with how little we have done to protect our oceans despite having an abundant amount of evidence around the consequences of plastic mismanagement. Currently, we are creating so much of the material, that an estimated garbage truck full of plastic waste is entering our oceans every second. Not only does this damage our ecosystems, but is a massive waste of our natural resources. However, demonising the material solely on society’s incapacity to manage it would be doing plastic a disservice. Consider for a moment the following advantages and offering plastics have if managed correctly.

Food preservation and transportation benefits

“Plastic packaging can also benefit the environment: its low weight reduces fuel consumption in transportation, and its barrier properties keep food fresh longer, reducing food waste. As a result of these characteristics, plastics are increasingly replacing other packaging materials.” (Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2016)

By 2050, the world will need to feed 9 billion people. Plastic currently plays a significant role in the prevention of food waste and helps contain the spread of foodborne disease. Furthermore, UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) stated that food waste contributes to “about 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans. For every kilo of food produced, 4.5 kilos of CO2 are released into the atmosphere.” (FAO, 2011)

However, these advantages are entirely overshadowed by the woeful mismanagement of plastics afterlife. The throwaway culture our society has developed has seen plastic’s true potential squandered into landfill and ocean. A staggering 91% of plastics worldwide aren’t even being recycled and 50% of the plastic we use is thrown away after one use, sometimes after only a few minutes.

If we continue purchasing plastic-intensive packaging, one-use water bottles, straws, coffee cups, food containers and other such items, the demand for them will also continue. Simply reducing the use of these items will lead to higher demand for alternatives, while easing the current pressures placed on our recycling systems. The World Economic Forum’s succinctly states:

‘We must enhance system effectiveness to achieve better economic and environmental outcomes while continuing to reap the many benefits of plastic packaging.” (The World Economic Forum, 2016)

The importance, therefore, of using environmentally friendly alternatives such as reusable water bottles, reusable coffee cups, or other plastic-free items cannot be overstated. Moving away from this throwaway culture will lower the demand for single-use plastic items or plastic intensive items that can put pressure on the system and lead to a much-needed industry change where more viable biodegradable alternatives can be produced and used.

Plastic coffee cup, College Road, Cork. Photo: Killian Kelly

Cleaning up the mess that we’ve made.

Currently, five giant garbage patches are circulating in our oceans. Thankfully, great success and much hope have come in the form of innovative solutions and advanced technology to remove plastics from our oceans. Two ground-breaking solutions have surprisingly come from teenagers.

Boyan Slat founded the Ocean Clean-Up Project at the age of 18, and in recent years oceanographers and scientists began recognising the feasibility of Boyan Slat’s ideas. The Ocean Clean-Up uses advanced technological mechanisms to harness the oceans currents to help rid the ocean of plastic. Incredibly, the Ocean Clean-up project is now on course to reduce the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (the largest of the five) by up to 50% in the next five years.

Image result for the ocean cleanup

One of Slats Plastic collection systems. Photo: The Ocean Clean Up

Closer to home, Irish teenager, Fionn Ferreira from Schull Community College, Co. Cork, came up with an extraordinary solution to the micro-plastic problem that has left some leading scientists baffled and incredibly impressed at his innovative solution. Using a combination of oil and magnetite powder the Irish teen has created a ‘plastic magnet’ that can attract the notoriously difficult to trace microplastics. Fionn’s prototype was successful in removing 87% of microplastics from the water, a fantastic development in the attempts being made to address the plastic ocean issue.

Closing the Source – Developing Countries

While promising efforts are being made to counteract the damaging effect of plastic pollution – without addressing one of the primary sources of the issue, we can never thoroughly cleanse our oceans of plastic waste. Developing countries are being left drowning in mountains of plastic with insufficient waste management systems. They have little hope of rectifying the issues by themselves. The top ten nations for plastic waste production are all developing countries. 60% of all plastics that end up in our oceans come from only five of these countries – China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Vietnamese vendor on a polluted plastic roadside. Photo: Killian Kelly

Struggling to cope with such amounts of waste, cities, and towns in these countries resort to the uncontrolled burning of plastic on the roadside releasing extremely hazardous chemicals into the air causing severe lung damage and other long-term health problems.

Governments such as the UK are beginning to understand the extent of the situation, and are reconsidering their foreign aid distribution to include waste management systems in developing countries. A call by Theresa May in 2017 to redirect more of the UK’s 13 billion foreign aid budget towards rectifying the problem is a promising sign of international awareness and concern. In Europe, positive news concerning single-use plastics came from the European Commission on Monday – 4th June, as they proposed a ban on single-use plastics.

Closing the Source – at home

Plastic Waste by the river Lee, Co. Cork, Ireland. Photo: Killian Kelly

There now exists an array of different plastics, all of which have fundamentally changed how we conduct business, travel, trade, and transport. At no other point in history, in such a short space of time has a material embedded itself so deeply within our society, and unfortunately too, our oceans and ecosystems. A message reiterated by so many environmental groups, concerned citizens, and governments of late is the following;

“If you can’t reuse it, refuse it”

As a result of public demand, positive signs are appearing in industry. Swedish retail giant Ikea is currently looking into using a biodegradable mushroom-based packaging that could replace polystyrene, which is notoriously difficult to recycle. Thousands of cafes across the world are replacing unrecyclable disposable coffee cups with compostable alternatives. More recently, the fast food giant McDonald’s, have announced they are to replace all plastic straws with paper alternatives across Ireland and the UK. Refusing to use isn’t just making a statement, it’s making a difference.

While biodegradable alternatives exist, they are not yet at a point where they can successfully replace the wide-ranging, and versatile use plastics have. It is therefore crucial that we harness this current energy and awareness around ending unnecessary plastic use so that we can pave the way for more viable alternatives, and a brighter, cleaner future for all.

“Never before, have we had such awareness about what we are doing to the planet, and never before, have we had the power to do something about that.” – Sir David Attenborough

Green Campus Intern – Killian Kelly



Find out more on how you can reduce your plastic footprint here.

A message from David Attenborough: