The Malta Independent 19 May 2022, Thursday

When convenience became a scourge

Mark Said Sunday, 23 January 2022, 08:26 Last update: about 5 months ago

How many of us know that it was  Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland who, in 1907, created Bakelite, the first real synthetic, mass-produced plastic, and that it was American engineer Nathaniel Wyeth, who, in 1973, developed plastic bottles as a much cheaper alternative to glass bottles? At the time they were hailed and universally acclaimed since, for plastics, the sky was the limit! Plastic was durable, heat resistant and ideally suited for mechanical mass production. Marketed as “the material of a thousand uses” it provided endless possibilities.

Sure,  back then, plastic inventions had apparently changed the world for the better. The low cost and versatility of plastics made consumer goods more widely accessible and allowed for critical developments in innumerable fields. Plastics improved safety, with inventions like padded foam dashboards and bicycle helmets.

The creation of new materials also helped free people from the social and economic constraints imposed by the scarcity of natural resources. Inexpensive celluloid made material wealth more widespread and obtainable.

Before the invention of plastic, the only substances that could be moulded were clays (pottery) and glass. Hardened clay and glass were used for storage, but they were heavy and brittle. Some natural substances, like tree gums and rubber, were sticky and moldable.

The possibilities of plastics presented an almost utopian vision of a future with abundant material wealth thanks to an inexpensive, safe, sanitary substance that could be shaped by humans to their every whim.

How convenient! This discovery was revolutionary. For the first time, human manufacturing was not constrained by the limits of nature. Nature only supplied so much wood, metal, stone, bone, tusk and horn. But now humans could create new materials. And the plastics revolution was only getting started. But the unblemished optimism about plastics did not last.

For example, plastic bottles were meant to carry a bottle of drinking water in the plastic but ended up carrying away the entire ocean with plastic. The plastic bottle went from a miracle container to hated garbage. Most plastics ended up in landfills or in the environment. Grocery-store plastic bags became a target for activists and many countries, including Malta, passed bag bans. Usage of plastic in packing medicines started packing the earth medically unfit for any life. The ultimate symbol of the problem of plastic waste was the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has often been described as a swirl of plastic garbage the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean.

When we had no plastic, we had habits that were by default eco-friendly – be it: carrying our own bags for shopping, reusing things instead of dumping them after every use, keeping things safe from moisture instead of needing material to protect them from moisture.

Barely a hundred years later, Baekeland and Wyeth could well be considered as heroes turned villains. With hindsight and looking back on their so-called achievements, one may today legitimately curse those moments which led to their introduction into our lives, an initial innocuous material that eventually has turned into a worldwide scourge that will haunt us for generations to come.

Plastic’s reputation plummetted as anxiety about waste increased. Plastic became a special target because, while so many plastic products were disposable, plastic lasts forever in the environment. Ironically, it was the plastics industry that offered recycling as a solution. The reputation of plastics suffered further thanks to a growing concern about the potential threat additives (such as the much-discussed bisphenol A [BPA] and a class of chemicals called phthalates) pose to human health. We should worry particularly about the effects of these chemicals on children and what continued accumulation means for future generations.

Come January of 2021 and the European Parliament passes a new law banning single-use plastic items such as plates, cutlery, straws and cotton buds sticks. Europe now has a legislative model to defend and promote at international level, given the global nature of the issue of marine pollution involving plastics. Malta did its part too. Single-use plastic products such as cutlery, straws, cotton buds and plates are now prohibited from being imported into the country and their sale eventually banned. We were among the first countries to ban certain single-use plastic products in the European Union.

Some scientists are attempting to make plastics safer and more sustainable, developing bioplastics, which are made from plant crops instead of fossil fuels, to create substances that are more environmentally friendly than conventional plastics. Others are working to make plastics that are truly biodegradable and searching for ways to make recycling more efficient, and they even hope to perfect a process that converts plastics back into the fossil fuels from which they were derived. So does all this mean that plastic will continue to have an important and necessary part of our future?

Whatever, we are close to suffocating in the grim vestiges of years of unbridled and unregulated use of plastics, the harmful remnants of which will continue to abound around us for years to come. Plastic disposal is not only polluting the land, but the water and the air, the three primary elements for any living being.

Plastic will become a more destructive weapon than a nuclear bomb or an atom bomb, with its impact remaining for centuries on the future generation.  A plastic pollution-free world is not a choice, but a commitment to life a commitment to future generations. The scale of the plastic mess we leave behind is proportionate to the level of respect we have for others. There is only one way forward: ban every form of plastic before plastic bans every form of life on the earth.


Dr Mark Said is an advocate


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