The Plastics Revolution

I got to thinking about plastic and  when it started to inundate the world, to the point that oceans and beaches are being clogged with bags and containers, our landfills are becoming toxic dumps and we’re looking at ways to get rid of these beasts that have a relatively long half-life.

Plastic is not found naturally in nature. Trees and even papery aspects of them in certain barks or wasp and hornet nests are. Glass in the form of a volcanic residue such as obsidian is found in nature. Sand, the basis for glass of course is. Gum and shellac were early natural plastics. Next came the chemically modified plastics starting with celluloid, developed in 1855 and was used as an ivory replacement and in photographic and movie film. But it was highly flammable. Collagen and rubber were a few of these. Later came the fully synthetic, not found anywhere in nature, plastics such as epoxy and bakelite.

I’m trying to remember the plastics of my childhood. I vaguely recall milk in glass bottles, and later waxed paper cartons. There were no plastic jugs for milk but there were for making Koolaid and other nutritious drinks like Tang. I think cottage cheese and the like might have come in waxed cardboard containers but I really don’t remember. There were the melamine dishes, often used for camping and very similar in denseness to the bakelite of old. I have one bakelite button that is put on like a buttoniere and has a screw back. I think it’s from the 30s.

There were of course plastic bags for things like bread but grocery bags were still paper. I can’t think of what we used for a garbage bag. I think it was paper and then tossed into the large green Glad bags. Saran wrap and other food wraps were around and even Ziploc bags but waxed paper and aluminum foil were just as likely.

Dolls were plastic, as were other cheap toys. But many toys were still metal. And things like shampoos, lotions, detergents seemed to always be in plastic containers of a type that could grow brittle if you had them for a couple of years. Pens and binders were always plastic too. But plastic wrapped things, shrink-wrapped items, equipment sold in blister packs or sealed in a stiff transparent plastic, those we did not have…much.

Now they’re everywhere. Plastic bags ooze out of ever garbage can. Clothing is made of recycled plastic and we worry about birds and other animals eating discarded bits of plastic or getting entangled. Vancouver is thinking of banning plastic bags. Stores would have to resort to paper or you bring your own cloth bag. The problem with banning all plastic bags is what do you use for your garbage can? Then you’d have to buy bags as opposed to re-using them. But then Vancouver is about to start curbside composting so garbage cans won’t have to be lined. But what do you pick dog poop up with?

And speaking of poop, what would happen if everyone went back to cloth diapers. Disposable (a misnomer if there ever was one) diapers cause huge strains on landfills. I remember my mother holding my little brother’s cloth diaper over the toilet and flushing the chunky bits down before tossing them in the washing machine. Many of my friends have used diaper services where you just toss soiled diapers, chunks and all, into a pail and the service deals with it all. It turns out to not be any more expensive than buying the disposables and probably better for baby’s bum too.

Look around and you’ll see how much plastic is on you or surrounding you. Plastic shoes, soles, purses, wallets, buttons, nylons, phones, furniture, etc. All of it. And most of it will take a very very long time to break down and will not add anything beneficial to the environment. Plastic like air pollution, has increased exponentially in the last century and it’s a huge problem. There are countries were you can walk the beaches for the plastics and animals are dying, at the rate of extinction for some. Next time you buy those prepackaged handy lunch packs in a plastic container and then shrink wrapped, ask if there would be a better way to do this, such as buying or making something in bulk and having reusable containers that you can use over and over. I think it’s more pervasive than we realize and is a large contributor to what’s causing our overflowing and toxic landfills.

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2 Comments

Filed under consumer affairs, environment, food, health, history, nature, science, technology

2 responses to “The Plastics Revolution

  1. You are right that plastic seems to have taken over the world and its a great shame how much is disposable and ends up in our oceans. I love the early plastics, and they were so much better quality that they have lasted and are now collectable. If plastic items today were better made, we wouldn’t end up throwing so many away into landfills. So I always buy vintage plastic for canisters, storage etc. and try to minimise the amount of modern plastic in my life. Glad you are highlighting the problem.

    • colleenanderson

      Yes, I try to use containers over and over but how many can you keep. And many people don’t know that even plastic food storage containers (even if they say food grade) should not be used for microwaving. Any heating of plastic releases estrogen but not in a good way. And melting plastic is positively toxic.

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