Is Plastic Good or Bad?
Durable, light-weight, cheap and waterproof. Plastic is everywhere in our modern lives. Knowing the story of plastic can help us use it wisely. And using by wisely we can tell a whole new story…
According to industry, plastic is fantastic– it enables the most amazing products and technologies. Plastic makes our lives easier and longer, while businesses can make lots of money and our economies can grow. Then when we’re done, it can recycled into something new and useful.
Of course, if you ask environmentalists, they will tell you a different story. And if you could ask the whales, turtles and albatross, they would have something else to say too. According to scientists, more and more plastic is accumulating in the biosphere, harming animals and affecting humans. Many activists argue that plastic is not fantastic at all.
But what is plastic? Where does it come from? And, where does it go? In order to make wise decisions about our plastic, it is essential to understand the seldom told story of plastic– one that is based on history and facts (see our list of references at the bottom of the page). And unlike the dark ending of today’s story of plastic, we can tell a whole new one– where it is a key stepping stone in the evolution of collective human consciousness.
Once upon a time….
…about 3.2 billion years ago, multicellular organisms figured out how to turn the light of the sun into life-force energy. Using photosynthesis organisms transformed sunlight by sucking in carbon dioxide, making sugars and storing the energy and the carbon as organic matter. Plants grew bigger and spread across the planet. Slow and steady they began to transform the carbon in the early earth air into plants… and animals!
Two hundred million years ago, when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, plants had gotten really good at transforming carbon. Immense forests covered the continents, and massive blooms of algae filled low lying seas. As time passed, all this carbon-rich organic matter was were covered with sediment. All of the carbon that had been captured by photosynthesis was effectively stored safely under the earth. With all this carbon out of the air, the Earth’s atmosphere cooled and calmed down. A combination of pressure and time transformed the buried carbon biomass into what we today call ‘fossil fuels’.
Evolution was able to continue and one particular primate species manged to do pretty well! Then, on a cold dark Ice age night a few hundred thousand years ago, one of our early ancestors figured out that if they could get wood hot enough, they could get it to catch fire and warm their cave– breaking apart wood’s carbon molecules to recombine with oxygen in the air and make heat and light.
Humans got better and better at burning organic stuff. A few thousand years ago, humans discovered that by unearthing and burning coal (highly condensed carbon from those ancient fossilized forests), they could get even more heat and light than by burning wood.
A few hundred years ago, humans discovered how to turn coal and petroleum (another condensed fossil fuel) into a power source for machines and industry. Soon, cities like London were filled with amazing new inventions: heating stoves, trains, lanterns and more.
Unfortunately, just like burning wood the burning of fossil fuels released smoke– the carbon and other elements inside as gases into the air. With so much fossil fuels being burned, London became one of the richest cities of the and most polluted city of the time. Thick, chocking, toxic “pea souper” fogs would cover the city for days at a time in the 1800’s.
Humans became better and better at refining fossil fuels– in particular petroleum– to make all sorts of energy rich fuels like gas and diesel. However, in the process of refinement during the 19th century, there was a left over residue (5-15% depending on the crude being used) that just couldn’t be turned into fuel. This left over sludge began to accumulate as it had no where to go.
It was soon realized, that this left over could be used for making stuff. Through an additional chemical process it could be turn into polymers. And polymers could be turn into all sorts of new materials with an endless variety of properties: “Plastics”.
Soon humans were solving problems by making all sorts of amazing materials and products. No longer did elephants need to be killed for their ivory to make our billiard balls. No longer did you need expensive silver plates to take a photograph. Plastic has enabled all sorts of breakthroughs that we take for granted today.
As petroleum became the primary energy source for the economies of whole countries, lots and lots of fossil fuels were being refined1 , and more and more leftovers, known generally as ‘naphtha’, were being turned into plastics.2. With the refinement already paid for, this meant that feed stock for making plastic was almost cost-less– oil companies were happy to see it gone. Industry could make money just by using up naphtha. And by making cheap plastic goods that were designed to be thrown away and quickly replaced, they could make more and more and more.
Accustomed to traditional materials like wood and paper that could be disposed safely, humans went about disposing lots and lots of plastic. Unlike organic materials, plastic did not biodegrade and could last a long time. Since 1950 an estimated 8300 million metric tons (MT) of virgin plastics have been produced worldwide.3Today, it is estimated that 89% of all plastics that have ever been made, have ended up loose in the biosphere. Those countries that burn the most fossil fuels, also produce the most plastic, and have the richest economies.5
In the early 2000’s the use of fracking to extract natural gas, provided another equally inexpensive source of raw material for plastic. According to the American Chemistry Council, since 2010, $186bn dollars has been invested in 318 new natural gas and plastic production projects to fuel a 40% increase in plastic production over the next decade6
Industrial Plastic Management
As a means to recuperate used plastics, industry and government have encouraged and legislated consumer recycling of plastic over the last fifty years. Industrial recycling commodifies plastic on its material value.
Various grades and purities of used plastic have different values. However, the grade of plastic is impossible to maintain with each cycle of recycling. With each cycle, the grade decreases, its value decreases and so too does the likelihood of it being recycled the next time round.
Eventually, all recycled plastic is “down-cycled,” becoming of insufficient value to warrant the industrial effort and drops out of the recycling system. Industrial recycling is thus not a closed circular process– rather it is a a downward spiral resulting in all plastic eventually escaping into the biosphere.
Plastic is toxic when loose in the environment
Scientists are learning more and more about the dangers of plastic to us, animals and ecosystems. When plastic gets loose in the environment and is exposed to sun, heat, fire, water and air it begins to degrade into gases, toxins and microplastics. It is when plastic degrades that the problems start.
When the UV rays from the sun hit plastic, it begins to photodegrade. The molecules that were added to make it soft and pliable begin to break off, releasing chemicals. These include plastic softener chemicals like Bisphenal A (BPA) and phalates that have been shown to be dangerous for humans. As these toxins leach out, the plastic fades and becomes brittle. The plastic then begins to fragment into smaller and smaller pieces– what scientists now call ‘micro-plastics’.
Burned and incinerated plastics have been shown to also release gases and toxins like dioxins. And since plastic is mainly carbon, the burning combines with the oxygen in the air to make carbon dioxide (CO2). When C02 and greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere they have been shown to disrupt global climate stability.
When photo and/or friction degradation happens near water, the toxins and micro-plastics accumulate and are absorbed by animals and plants. Through the food chain they make their way to us. BPA and Phalates have been shown to disrupt animal and human hormone balances. Dioxins have been shown to cause cancer. The effects of micro-plastics are still being researched.
When we get down to it, plastic isn’t bad. Nor is it good! Plastic is simply a particular arrangement of carbon molecules with a long long story behind them. As a by-product of this story, and fabricated by our petro-capital economy, plastic reflects us. It is a reflection of where humanity is in its story. Like any technology, plastic reflects the consciousness that went into making it. The fact our collective consciousness is transition from linear to circular thinking, isn’t bad either– its simply where we are as a species.
Up until now, our consciousness, like our economy, has been linear, human-focused, and profit-oriented. Today, we are observing the damaging impact of this thinking on our biosphere. Our petro-capital economic system burns more and more fuel in order to keep growing. Just like the toxic London pea-soup fogs, the gases releases by burning fossil fuels are adding up. All the CO2 that was condensed by the earth over millions of years is being released and having an effect. Ocean’s are becoming more acidic, polar ice is melting, climate is becoming affected.
In comparison to climatic disruption, plastic pollution is a minor issue. However, unlike ocean acidification or melting polar ice, plastic is part of our daily life. Plastic is the one part of the petro-capital economy that we can touch, manage and make a decision about everyday. In this way, plastic is our gateway to moving beyond the petro-capital economy. Plastic connects us all, enabling us to rally and take collective action.
If we can solve our plastic, we will also solve ocean acidification, climate change and the other challenges of our age. Living beyond linear, human-centered, and profit-thinking puts us on the road of solving the other ecological challenges of our time.
“The problem is always the solution”
– Bill Molinson, first principle of permaculture.
Plastic isn’t a bad or a good thing. Its a reflection of where we are now. By facing the mirror, we have an opportunity waiting to be seized and transformed.
References & Recommended Readings
For a more extensive version of this page, with full footnotes, please see the Global Ecobrick Alliance Ecobrick & Brikcoin whitepaper.
We also highly recommend the research bibliography of the Story of Stuff project.
1The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude, Greystone Books, Andrew Nikiforuk, 2002
4Plastics Europe, “Plastics—the Facts 2017” (Plastics Europe, 2018); www.plasticseurope.org/application/files/5715/1717/4180/Plastics_the_facts_2017_FINAL_for_website_one_page.pdf
5 Hoornweg, Bhada-Tata and Kennedy, ‘Environment: Waste production must peak this century‘, (Nature 502)
6Matthew Taylor, ‘$180bn investment in plastic factories feeds global packaging binge‘, (theguardian.com, 26 Dec 2017)
Plastic comes from the Earth
Plastic is created from the process of refining fossil fuels.
Ecobricks keep plastic & C02 out of the biosphere. Ecobricks raise ecological consciousness. And more!
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