Looking Back on The Story of Plastic: Where Did It Come From?

Looking Back on The Story of Plastic: Where Did It Come From?

Plastic wasn’t invented for the use we give it now— and it certainly wasn’t created to cause the environmental damage it has. Quite the opposite actually! Plastic was invented as an alternative to ivory in billiard balls. The intention behind it was to save elephants from being killed for their tusks. 

Shortly after, the commercial use of plastic was discovered, companies like Coca-Cola picked it up and started using it for their packaging. The discovery of plastic also unleashed an overwhelming amount of consumer goods made of plastic. 

So When Did It All Go Wrong?

As the single-use plastic empire was rising, companies producing it and using it in their products shifted the responsibility of cleaning up, recycling, and end of life to consumers, municipalities, and our planet. 

And that’s how the foundation for our plastic pollution problem was built. 

The issue grew stronger when companies like Exxon, Dow, and DuPont pushed a famous-to-this-day campaign. The goal was to put the blame of recycling on people…

Reuse, Reduce & Recycle 

A graph that says "can't we just recycle it"?

The famous 3 R’s campaign was adopted by these companies even though they knew that recycling wasn’t working. They put a major amount of money into marketing the idea of recycling—making people believe plastic would be recycled. 

The truth is— it isn’t. In fact, only 9% of the plastic ever created has been recycled. And these companies were making millions of dollars selling it while actively hiding plastic skeletons in their closets. 

There are records of industry leaders, as early as 1974, saying that recycling would never be economically viable. Yet they kept on pushing it as the ultimate solution. 

As they continued to push the idea of recycling, they also completely abandoned the industry, leaving it underfunded. This led to a lack of infrastructure to process the enormous amounts of plastic waste they were creating. And a lack of solutions to handle it. 

If Recycling Plastic Doesn’t Work… Let’s Bury It, Burn It, or Ship It to Space!

Those are great ideas! But unfortunately, they simply don’t work. For starters, we’re already burying plastic but we’re also producing 380 million tons of it every single year. There isn’t enough space to store all of that waste.  

Plus, microplastic pollution is already causing great harm to the health of our soil and soil species like worms. This puts food security and the environment in jeopardy. 

And burning it just adds fuel to the fire of climate change, global warming, and air pollution. Burning plastic creates incredibly polluting toxic fumes and releases mercury and dioxins into the air. 

And space? Let’s leave that to satellites and aliens. The cosmos is no place for trash. 

If There’s So Much Plastic Pollution…Why Doesn’t My Local Beach Have Any?

An old fishing net on the shore of a beach with a plastic dolphin entangled on it.

This opens up yet another can of worms surrounding plastic pollution. Because wealthy countries have the resources to manage waste, they make sure to keep their beaches clean. Unfortunately, this means shipping tons of plastic waste to countries without the infrastructure or wealth to manage it. 

So basically, wealthy countries create most plastic waste. Then, they ship it to countries like Thailand, India, Turkey, Indonesia, and Mexico— shifting the problem to their shores and beaches. 

In 2018, the US shipped a daily average of 429 plastic-waste containers to countries known to be overwhelmed with plastic pollution. The mismanagement of all this waste is causing great environmental and social harm in these countries.

The export of waste might be keeping your local beach clean, but our entire planet is connected. The pollution our ocean is facing on other sides of the world affects your shores too— even if you can’t see it. 

Is It True That You’re Eating a Credit Card of Plastic a Week? 

A graph that reads "how do I possibly eat a credit card of plastic a week?"

The problem with plastic in the ocean is not only the pollution on the shore. These plastics break down while in the water, turning into microplastics. Then, fish eat these tiny plastic particles and eventually make it to your dinner plate. 

But fish and shellfish aren’t the only problems. 

Microplastics are everywhere—especially in the water you drink. Recent studies show plastic water bottles contain anywhere from 325 to 1,000 microplastic particles in them. The brands tested for this study are some of the most popular in the U.S., like Nestle. 

Microplastics are so tiny and persistent that they’re even being found in the air in remote mountain locations. The same air we breathe. 

So yes, you’re eating plastic. You’re breathing it in too. And before we continue to churn out plastics into the environment, we need to understand their impact on our health and our planet’s health. 

What About Bio and Compostable Plastics? That’s the Solution, Right? 

A person holding bio plastic cups that were polluting a beach shore.

Well… it’s complicated. Compostable plastics take shorter to breakdown than regular plastics. But they don’t decompose fast enough for composting facilities (~6 weeks). Because of this, they often get sorted out and sent to a landfill. 

The problem with biodegradable plastic is that they can’t be recycled with regular plastic. When bio and regular plastics get mixed up, the batch is contaminated and it lowers the value of the recycled material. 

Since biodegradable plastics look so similar to plastic, they often end up in regular recycling bins. Right now, recyling bio-plastics it’s complicated—which means they often end up in a landfill or our oceans. 

Alright, All Plastic Is Bad— Let’s Ban It!

Woah Woah, hold up. Not all plastic is bad. Plastic is actually essential as it provides the means for innovation and technology. It’s used in medicine, your smartphone, and lots of other essential things. 

The problem is mostly single-use plastic. More than 50% of all plastic created is for single-use purposes— and it simply makes no sense. We’re fracking and drilling for oil, which is devastating our environment, to create something we’ll use for less than 5 minutes. Then, it’ll continue to cause harm for hundreds of years in our soil, air, and oceans. 

It’s time to change our “take-make-waste” way of living into a circular and more sustainable lifestyle. And we need you on board! 

So, What Do We Do Now? 

A graph that reads "OK, I get it. So what do we do now? Is it already too late?"

One and a half truckloads of plastic enter the ocean every minute. 

We’re on track for the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean to quadruple by 2040. 

But we’re still on time to make a change. We have the solutions today for a healthier, cleaner tomorrow. 

We can reduce the flow of plastic into the oceans by up to 80% by 2040. The sooner we turn off the tap, the sooner we can start creating a better world. For you. For future generations. For all of us. 

Join Lonely Whale and Gosili in Tackling Plastic Pollution.