How Did We Wind Up Here?

In today’s world, it is hard to miss the catastrophic headlines, shelves full of brightly patterned bamboo coffee cups and the rainbow sprinkling of plastic peeking out of shoreline seaweed. Yet only in the 1970s, the world used zero plastic shopping bags a year, while before the 1950s and the creation of convenience chains, polystyrene cups were absent from our daily lives. So how did we get here in just a few short decades?

In scientific terms, plastic is a synthetic chain made of small particles and often mixed with chemical additives to make the final product stronger and flame retardant. From the viewpoint of a post-war society, plastic was ‘the material of a thousand uses’. A cheap, cheerful and durable invention which fed newfound consumer demand after a decade of tightened purse strings during the Blitz.

Several forms of plastics were invented in the late 1800s, but their high price led to rapid demise. By the early 20th century, rubber, nitric acid and heat had been combined to form electrical insulation and by the 1930s, plastic was pursued as an inexpensive substitute to natural materials like rubber which had to be shipped from tropical equatorial regions. This revolutionary product freed traditional housewives from their kitchens as plastic plates and nappies could simply be tossed in the bin on their way out the door to their new jobs while pre-occupied children became mesmerised by the latest crazes in the form of hula hoops and GI Joes.

With plastic saving people both time and pennies, it is not surprising that it has been the world’s most popular material since 1976, with over 8.3 billion tonnes of the stuff produced in its short history. However, in the 21st century, the conversation around plastic is largely negative as its famed durability creates one of the greatest pollution issues of our time. Lightweight items such as film packaging can be wind-blown from landfill sites into rivers, drains or into the path of storms which all carry these intruders into the reach of the ocean where they meet objects dumped by select industries and ships. As marine litter becomes covered in algae and small organisms such as barnacles, the sunlight struggles to break down the material, leaving our ocean decorated in a myriad of colours.

There are an estimated 5.25 trillion plastic particles on the surface of our ocean and potentially many more on the seabed, with a plastic bag recently discovered at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, 10,898m below the surface. Yet arguably, plastic is still crucial in our futures. It will be used to engineer parts of the new Boeing 787 to make a light, more fuel-efficient way of travelling. It will be used to construct world-leading floating offshore wind farms in Scotland which will power our green economy. It will also be an essential part of medical and veterinary advances as it forms prosthetic limbs and aids organ transplant. Plastic can still be the revolutionary material we thought it to be 60 years ago, but we must stop this famously hardy material being turned into single-use objects before our precious sea turns to plastic soup.

The next instalment of this blog series will cover the unusual, unique and relatively unknown problems plastic causes in our oceans before helping you understand what you can do to help.

By Neve McCracken-Heywood

Rory Sinclair