Single-Use Plastic: For Every Good Idea, There Have Been Really Bad Outcomes.

In offering a good reason to ditch Single-Use plastic, forever, we need to provide a clear picture of what it is, what it is not, and why it is causing severe environmental problems. Historically, plastic seemed safe and had the benefit of low production costs for everyday items such as combs, toys and more and was initially a replacement for items made from endangered natural bi-products such as Ivory, tortoise shells and trees. It was pliable, could be fashioned into many shapes and sizes, and it seemed resilient and able to last forever. When modern plastic was first invented it was a plant based product that seemed to be a good answer in offering the growing middle class affordable products to aid them in the ever busier lives. One hundred years later, plastic is no longer plant based and is now manufactured using fossil fuels, namely oil, as the main ingredient. It was in the 1960s when we began to see the mess we had created with single use plastic and by 1972, recycling centers sprang up in cities across the country to recycle our disposed plastic waste … all good, right? Not so much!

The invention of modern plastic happened during the nineteenth century. John Wesley Hyatt, who despite being warned of impending explosions, “…blended camphor with nitrocellulose and produced a hard, moldable substance he dubbed celluloid. Patented in 1869, Hyatt and his brother began producing celluloid in 1871, marketing it as a substitute for natural materials like ivory and tortoiseshell.” (See Notes: Frienkel)

Although the first plastic was plant based, it was also highly flammable when stored in a closed environment. Think about celluloid movie film, which was responsible for many train car explosions and movie houses burning to the ground in the early days of silent film. Jumping to the 1920s, DuPont developed a line of dresser sets made of celluloid, which easily featured lines and curves in furnishing seen during the Art Deco period. Suddenly plastic was accepted by a middle class who favored the celluloid products because they were new, unique and more modern than what was traditionally available.

The willing acceptability of plastic, as well as the dangers of celluloid, set the stage for the development of its successors;  polypropylene and polyethylene, as well as polystyrene, polyester, nylon, bakelite, lucite and the plastic commonly known as vinyl. These plastics are carbon based by-products of oil and have presented manufacturers with the ability to offer cheaply made products once made from wood, glass or metals. After World War II, plastic began to permeate our households with multi-use storage containers, combs, bowls, utensils, and more. It opened up possibilities for inventors like Earl Silas Tupper (1907–83) in Leominster, Massachusetts where he developed plastic food containers from polypropylene and polyethylene in 1946, known to us as Tupperware. What better substance than plastic, which can be molded into nearly anything wanted by a consumer society. Disposing of multi-use plastic is an issue, but not as great or as dire as the problematic single-use plastics.

Single-use plastics are found in plastic bagging/wrapping material and containers; frozen food bags, fast food containers, soap dispensers, shampoo and conditioner bottles, cream lotions, toothpaste, liquid laundry detergent and so much more. Perhaps the most prevalent single-use plastic is the logoed shopping bag which replaced the paper bags previously used as well as the ever popular discarded bottles for soda-pop and water (a full one-liter Coke bottle was found by divers at the bottom of the Black-Hole off the coast of Belize in 2018, along with an floating underwater mass of plastic bags and refuse). 

The plastic bag that we continue to use today (until they are successfully banned)  had a very good intention in the heart of their inventor, Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin. In 1959, he envisioned these seemingly harmless, yet helpful bags to be the way to save the planet from deforestation by reducing the use of paper bags. His invention had a lot of heart, but did not have the foresight that humans are pretty messy and basically thoughtless (this includes the author, herself, up until 30 years ago.)

So, what can we do about Single-Use Plastics?  The simple answer is quite a lot. However, it will take some work on all our parts. Perhaps the hardest thing we can do is to start thinking in terms of what we buy and why we buy it. Then we start working on breaking bad habits involving convenience, which then leads to learning new ways to do our part in helping our environment heal. If we start breaking consumer habits that are bad for the environment by making purchasing choices that are sustainable, then the big corporate manufacturers may get the hint that their products will no longer sell as they stand. After all, our purchases do affect their pocketbook.

The good news: marketers are coming around to offering us sustainable products but at elevated cost. It will take time. The new sustainable products on the market now will eventually come down in price as supply and demand level out. In the meantime, we all need to start ditching as much single-use plastic as possible and fortunately, there are numerous things we can do now. As stated, it may not be convenient but, it can help to influence the market to speed things up.

This is a continuing series on single-use plastic: recycling, re-use and changing bad habits. Watch for the next article as it looks at the various plastics mentioned above while covering the following issues: plastic composition; plastic numerical typing and its affect on the environment; how long each type will hang around, what micro-plastic refuse is doing to our environment and health, and more. (If I can figure out how to get a graph and/or photos into the body, I will do so (no promises on that one, I am still a novice on WordPress). And finally, why recycling is not as practical as we had hoped it would be….that good idea / bad outcome thingy again.  Right now, we need to greatly reduce single-use plastic.

NOTES: The following articles were accessed in research. For further information please see the following: