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Plastic - Poison or an Antidote? 

History - How Plastics came to being 

Do you know how we went from a race to win a ten-thousand-dollar reward to a full blown  plastic pollution crisis? 

No? Let me tell you how.

It all started with the entrepreneur Michael Phelan in 1863 whose billiard-ball business relied heavily on ivory obtained from elephants. The growing ivory scarcity pushed Phelan into exploring ivory substitutes, and supporting this search with an attractive offer of a ten-thousand-dollar reward

Motivated by this offer, John Wesley Hyatt tested some ideas, including experimenting with nitrocellulose. Hyatt found that a specific type of nitrocellulose could be molded into any shape after being heated with camphor. The product was termed ‘celluloid’ and used to make products other than billiard balls. We’re talking dentures, combs, piano keys etc. 

In some ways this was the beginning of the end, as it marked the first commercial production of plastic in the world. Since then, the creation of different forms of plastic, and the volume of plastics created across the globe, has skyrocketed. Plastics went from being an antidote to a scarcity problem, to being quite poisonous for our health.

Why is it considered poisonous? 

Plastics were here before some of us and will be here long after we’re gone, even in uninhabited lands as recent evidence shows. Beyond polluting the oceans and hurting the biodiversity within it, plastics can degrade into microplastics (bits of plastic that are smaller than five millimeters). As plastics degrade, the chemicals that went into their production leak out. These chemicals could be one of the 13,000 chemicals associated with plastic production and plastics, and found in items like children's toys, electronic equipment, furniture etc. Many of these chemicals are hazardous and harmful to breathe in

Indeed microplastics do not just leak harmful chemicals but also attract them — for example, chemicals like ‘‘persistent bioaccumulative toxic substances (PBTS)’ which are essentially chemicals that resist environmental degradation, and accumulate in living organisms overtime.


We all encounter microplastics in different forms — it could literally be from our clothes which shed microfibres, down to our tyres which release particles into the air as they roll along our car/bicycle journeys. Interestingly, researchers have found microplastic in human placentas and in an infant’s first poop. Children are possibly feeding on microplastics before they can even eat. Crazy? I know!

Is recycling the solution?

After reading these harrowing impacts, you might be pondering on a solution and ask the question — ‘well what can we do about this’? The usual response promoted even by the very perpetrators of the crisis, is RECYCLING! 

We recycle, and our trash often gets shipped to waste entrepreneurs in countries where regulations around waste management are lax. In their bid to recycle, some entrepreneurs cause a bigger problem, for example, extruding plastic and creating nurdles — a form of microplastic. 

In some cases, plastics (eg. those made from polyethylene terephthalate like soda and water bottles)  are often tricky to reprocess because they are contaminated by other bits of trash or other kinds of plastic. Some recycling companies never tell you this though and will profit from your goodwill. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not saying don’t recycle but bear in mind that recycling really doesn't work in the long term. 'Turning off the tap’ by curbing production is the only viable solution.

What are the Trade-offs?

As with all policies, there are always trade offs. The plastics industry is technically borne out of the fossil-fuel industry. ExxonMobil for example is a world leading oil company, but also one of the leading producers of virgin polymers (plastics that are manufactured from materials that have not been used or processed before e.g. petroleum). Any attempts to ‘turn off the tap’ completely are met with resistance that obstructs negotiations either openly or secretly. Beyond this, there is a question of suitable alternatives. For example, do we replace plastics with paper and subsequently increase deforestation, still offsetting climate change? Perhaps we could consciously move towards a world of reuse instead of perpetuating a throwaway culture.

Ultimately, there are decisions to be made on a policy level around the best direction. As Elizabeth Kolbert concludes in her New Yorker article: "If much of contemporary life is wrapped up in plastic, and the result of this is that we are poisoning our kids, ourselves, and our ecosystems, then contemporary life may need to be rethought. The question is what matters to us, and whether we’re willing to ask ourselves that question."


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Chemist holding vial  - Image by Bermix Studio on Unsplash (ST ref: 1226)

Man lying on garbage pile - Jordan Beltran (ST ref: 1157) 

Plastic bottles in water - Image by Ajin KS (ST ref: 1209)


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