Plastic is the main background material of modern material life. “You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that today’s cars and planes are, by volume, about 50% plastic. More clothing is made out of polyester and nylon, both plastics, than cotton or wool. Plastic is also used in minute quantities as an adhesive to seal the vast majority of the 60bn teabags used in Britain each year… Each year, the world produces around 340m tonnes of the stuff, enough to fill every skyscraper in New York City. Humankind has produced unfathomable quantities of plastic for decades, first passing the 100m tonne mark in the early 1990s. But for some reason it is only very recently that people have really begun to care.”
But getting rid of plastic won’t be easy. Plastic is cheap, light and flexible. “…plastic made possible the cheap and disposable consumer culture that we have come to take for granted.”
So why have people become so worked up about plastic all of a sudden?
“The shift in thinking started with the public outcry over microbeads, the small, abrasive grains of plastic that companies began pouring into cosmetic and cleaning products in the mid-1990s to add grit. (Nearly every plastic product has a natural and often biodegradable antecedent – plastic microbeads replaced ground seed kernels or pumice stones.) Scientists began raising the alarm about potential dangers posed to sea life in 2010, and people were shocked to learn that microbeads were in thousands of products, from Johnson & Johnson’s spot-clearing face scrubs, to supposedly eco-friendly brands like the Body Shop.
The realisation that microbeads were pouring down millions of shower drains was a key moment in the public turn against plastic, according to Will McCallum, head of plastics campaigns at Greenpeace UK. “It was a design decision, a design flaw really,” he said. “It led people to ask, ‘How did this happen?’”
Then we learnt that synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester would shed thousands of microscopic fibres with every wash. These fibres end up lodged in the guts of fish. Then came tyres – 60% of the volume of a tyre is plastic and these tyres shed even more microfibres than our synthetic clothes.
As these issues built up, plastic became public enemy #1 and crowded out what are arguably more important issues like global warming. Part of the reason for this is that people feel they can do something about plastic – using a paper straw makes you feel you are doing something useful in saving the planet. That in turn has meant that across the world the campaign against single-use plastic has taken off. In contrast, with someone as big and as complex as global warming, many people have stopped believing that their own actions can make a difference.
Politicians too have realised that going after single use plastic gives them green credentials in a way that tackling global warming couldn’t give them (because tangible progress with a mega-issue like global warming is hard to show).
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