27 May 2018 19:23 IST

From pliable to implacable

The journey of plastic and its role in triggering the beginning of the end of our planet

When I was a schoolgirl, there was a rumour that a certain brand of ice-cream used cardboard as its main ingredient. This was followed by a palpable concern that the milk we consumed was adulterated because our cows were living off posters pasted on walls. Everywhere you looked, the cud that cows famously chewed was basically printed paper lick-offs. Today their diet seems to comprise chiefly plastic materials. And it’s not just cows.

The worst-affected is marine life. Sea turtles, whales, dolphins, fish, sea birds, seals, sea lions — there is incontrovertible proof that species are suffocating to death because of the huge amounts of plastic they inadvertently swallow. According to information provided by One Green Planet, the Laysan albatross, for instance, is an unwitting victim because of its hunting technique. It dives into the water to catch fish or other food and as it skims the surface with its beak, it picks up plastic which then obstructs the digestive tract. Fish and other mammals that breathe through their gills are victims of microscopic plastic debris. It stands to reason that anyone who eats fish also ingests microscopic plastic debris.

No, I am not being alarmist; this is a fact. As it is a fact that we are creating mountains of plastic waste because of the horrendous rate at which we use and throw simply because we find it convenient, we are lazy, we are selfish, and we refuse to think beyond the radius of our own noses. The fact is we don’t care two hoots for our children and our grandchildren although we pop them out at breakneck speed. If we did, we’d be more careful about plastic for sure.

Transformation of plastic

According to an article on the history and future of plastics published by the Science History Institute headquartered in Philadelphia, USA, the word ‘plastic’ originally meant ‘pliable and easily shaped’. Now it refers to a category of materials called polymers, which means ‘of many parts’. Cellulose, for instance, is a common natural polymer. Synthetic polymers are made from carbon atoms provided by petroleum and other fossil fuels. The “length of these chains, and the patterns in which they are arrayed” make them strong, lightweight and flexible — and therefore, extremely useful. The use of plastics has embedded itself in our lives over the last 50 years.

The invention of the first synthetic polymer is connected to billiards. The balls used in billiards used to be made of ivory, obtained by slaughtering elephants. Then in 1869, a man called John Wesley Hyatt took up a challenge — along with a prize of $10,000 — thrown by a New York firm for anyone who could provide a substitute for the ivory balls. Hyatt’s experiments with cellulose led him to treating it with camphor until he eventually discovered a pliable plastic. There was much excitement around this revolutionary new material. As the article puts it: “Advertisements praised celluloid as the saviour of the elephant and the tortoise. Plastics could protect the natural world from the destructive forces of human need.”

Then in 1907, Leo Baekeland invented bakelite, a fully synthetic material which was a good insulator, durable, heat resistant, and suited for mechanical mass production. It was marketed as “the material of a thousand uses”. Along came the war and nylon, invented in 1935 as a synthetic silk, was used to make parachutes, ropes, body armour, helmet liners and so on. Plexiglass was used for aircraft windows. Production of plastic in the US during World War II increased by 300 per cent, says the article. And there was no stopping its march into the future.

Bleak future

Well, we now inhabit that future and our children further face a future that’s utterly bleak unless we stop the catastrophic use of plastic. Although you don’t see ships of plastic floating on the seas, it’s all lying at the bottom, slowly disintegrating. However you do see rivers, streams and what water bodies remain, lined with disgustingly large quantities of plastic waste, as also streets and street corners. When you throw out your garbage today, check to see how much of it comprises plastic. You will be shocked. Indeed, most of the plastic in the ocean comes from us: bottles, bottle caps, bags, food containers and the like. Over time, the plastic breaks down, disperses though the waters and is ingested by all forms of marine life. It seems no part of our planet, land or water, is plastic-free.

One of the big problems is the mindless manner in which plastic is used for packing/packaging. The good old days of the kirana storekeeper giving you your dals and condiments in paper cones are gone. Now, it’s a sign of ‘development’ to have everything packaged in plastic, although the adulteration continues unabated.

Our options

What can we do about it? Surely we can do something? Well, maybe clean up after you’ve partied somewhere or been to the park. And don’t be shy about cleaning up after others: they’re bloody idiots, you know better. Some of your friends may be tempted to follow in your footprints, and that’s good. Plastic containers and bags used just the once and then chucked into the dustbin (best case scenario) or flung on to the street (the absolute worst offence) are a complete no-no. Try to recycle plastic wherever possible. If it cannot be recycled, shun it. If everybody shuns such items, the demand for it will wither away and it will stop being used. We can thus initiate the closure of the industry.

Stop using plastic straws. It’s easy after you’ve done it the first time. Yes, drinking elaneer may be a challenge, but it’s only a little tender coconut water dripping down the sides of your mouth. Besides, it’s good for your skin. Soon, you will master the trick of drinking clean. Remember, it takes 200 years for a plastic straw to decompose. Think. Do you really need that straw? Even if the glass is tall? And the next and every time you go shopping, carry your own bags. How difficult is this? You can even slip a small cloth bag into your pocket or your handbag. Just do it.

Take a flask to Sangeetha or Starbucks for hot coffee, and provide your own containers for a takeaway. At first there will be shock and awe, but that will change. Avoid buying bottled water: carry a bottle from home. Definitely your chief guest and party do not require a small bottle of water sitting in front of their faces while they adorn the dais. Whoever is thirsty will ask for a glass of water. Did you know that exfoliating face washes contain plastic microbeads that cannot be degraded? And why do you need a disposable razor? Get a razor that allows you to replace the blade.

The manufacture and destruction of plastic releases toxic chemicals that seep into the air and soil, poisoning groundwater and the ecosystem. We have caused enough damage already; this cannot be reversed. But we can try to end the plastic overkill so that we can reclaim some of the air, land and water.

Does this mean that only if we let our oceans live shall we be able to live?