by Theresa Peluso

 A little over 150 years ago, plastic didn’t exist.  Now, in the 21st century, it has insinuated itself into every facet of our lives, and into the darkest depths and farthest reaches of our natural environment.  It’s both Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, enhancing life and destroying it at the same time.  Renowned for its indestructibility, plastic now threatens to smother the world as its production and use grows exponentially.

Plastic, a moldable, synthetic material most commonly derived from petrochemicals, had its beginnings in the late 1840s, but really came into its own in 1907 with the invention of Bakelite by Leo Baekland, a Belgian-born American living in New York. In 1924 Baekland was featured on Time Magazine’s cover, and the accompanying story on his invention included the following quote: “From the time that a man brushes his teeth in the morning with a Bakelite-handled brush until the moment when he removes his last cigarette from a Bakelite holder, extinguishes it in a Bakelite ashtray, and falls back upon a Bakelite bed, all that he touches, sees, uses will be made of this material of a thousand purposes.”  (Time, September 22, 1924) (For more information on the origins of plastic, please refer to oilstorieshistory.blogspot.com and to Wikipedia: plastic.)

Let’s fast-forward to 2009.  According to Renee Cho, in her article “What Happens to All That Plastic?” (state of the planet:  blogs from The Earth Institute, Columbia University):

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, global plastic consumption has gone from 5.5 million tons in the 1950s to 110 million tons in 2009.  Where does all this plastic go when we’re done with it?

Today Americans discard about 33.6 million tons of plastic each year, but only 6.5 percent of it is recycled and 7.7 percent is combusted in waste-to-energy facilities, which create electricity or heat from garbage. The rest ends up in landfills where it may take up to 1,000 years to decompose, and potentially leak pollutants into the soil and water. It’s estimated that there are also 100 million tons of plastic debris floating around in the oceans threatening the health and safety of marine life.

Relatively little plastic is recycled because there are various types of plastic with different chemical compositions, and recycled plastics can be contaminated by the mixing of types. Plastic waste is also contaminated by materials such as paper and ink. Separating plastics from non-plastics in the recycling process, and different types of plastic from each other is labor-intensive and so far, there has been no easy solution.

According to the Integrated Waste Management Authority in San Luis Obispo County in California (website: www.iwma.com/programs-events/Impact%20of%20Plastic.html), 86% of ocean debris is plastic, ranging from large, intact pieces of plastic to microscopic dust.  In its dust form, it pollutes the deep ocean sediments, where plankton ingest it, and in turn are eaten by other animals, and so on, up the food chain.  Over 1,000,000 seabirds and marine mammals die each year from ingesting plastic or getting tangled in it. This doesn’t even take into account the number of fish that suffer this fate (sure to number in the millions). Animals, such as dolphins and sea turtles, will eat pieces of plastic sheeting, mistaking it for jellyfish and other prey, choking on it. Animals can also get entangled in fishing line or plastic strapping, which can drown them, or wrap around and amputate their appendages. Baleen whales, which swallow huge quantities of water when they feed, have been found dead with the equivalent of 6 m2 (about 36 square yards) of plastic debris in their stomachs, most of it in the form of grocery bags. A study involving the dissection of 600 fulmars (a gull-like relative of the albatross) that had washed up on beaches, revealed that 95% of them had plastic debris in their stomachs, with an average of 40 pieces of plastic per bird. Even living corals are killed when plastic bags wrap around them, suffocating them. Land animals, too, are killed by plastic. Furthermore, large build-ups of plastic bags can clog drainage systems and contribute to flooding.

In addition to all these bits of plastic littering land and water everywhere, our planet can now claim a new island that has been forming in the central North Pacific Ocean since the late 1980s, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  Built entirely of plastic garbage, trapped debris, and chemical sludge, it is now said to be the size of Texas!  Isn’t that a shameful legacy for our descendants to deal with?

Given the death and destruction plastic wreaks on our environment, why do people still buy water in plastic bottles?  Isn’t their tap water good enough?  Why do people persist in having their purchases packed in plastic bags even when they have to pay 5 cents each for them?  According to Wikipedia: “Although few peer-reviewed studies or government surveys have provided estimates for global plastic bag use, environmental activists estimate that between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used each year worldwide. In 2009, the United States International Trade Commission reported that 102 billion plastic bags are used annually in the United States alone. ”  I don’t think this even includes the plastic bags our milk, bread, pasta, cereal, chips, cookies, beans, toilet paper, toys, socks, and other small items come in.

So, this is a plea to commit yourself to plastic surgery – cut all that useless plastic out of your life NOW! Here’s how.

First of all, REDUCE.  Don’t even think about asking the store clerk to put your purchases in a plastic bag.  Avoid buying anything in bulky packages or unrecyclable plastic, especially styrofoam.  Re-usable mesh bags are available at your local grocery store (now on sale at Patrice’s for $1.94 for 4 bags) for packing produce in lieu of those flimsy, tear-off ones in the produce section of grocery stores that are almost impossible to open, and tend to rip or split with the slightest strain. You can then transfer your fruits and vegetables to other bags (saved from cereal, milk, bread, etc.) and refrigerate them.

Using biodegradable bags is an option, although the jury is still out as to whether production of these bags creates more problems than it solves.  Some only break down if they’re exposed to air, others only if they’re buried in a landfill or composted.  Others cost so much to make that their price dissuades people from buying them, or they require a lot of energy (high carbon footprint) to produce.

Don’t buy faddish toys, clothes, and accessories, or cheap stuff that breaks or loses its looks after a few uses.  Most of these things are made of plastic, and will still be around long after  your great-great-great-grandchildren have departed this world.  Exercise your political and consumer rights. Send e-mails to the head office of the stores you patronize telling them you don’t want to buy products that come in plastic-based packaging.  Do the same for your municipal representatives, and your provincial and federal members of Parliament.  Support initiatives to ban plastic bag use (several cities and countries have already done so), require bottle deposits and expand recycling. Share your opinion with others by writing letters to your local paper that explain how you feel.  If the beer stores can reuse their bottles, why can’t other food and beverage companies do the same? Do we really need 1,001 different sizes and styles of non-reusable containers?

Second, RE-USE. Many plastic containers, including bags, can be used to store leftovers, fat drippings, nails, thumbtacks, screws and baked goods, to pack shoes and creams in your luggage, to pick up dog feces – the possibilities are endless. Rinsed out milk pouches can be used to store food, or as gloves for messy tasks. On the Town of Mississippi Mills website  under “Other Waste Diversion Options”, you can find a long list of businesses that will “take It back”. Before you throw out that bit of plastic, think:  can I find a second or third life for it?  Chances are you will!

Third, after you have exhausted all the possibilities of the first two approaches, RECYCLE.  This is a last resort, because extracting the raw materials and processing the materials to make a given item, then transporting it to the point of purchase, has resulted in increased carbon emissions, pollution of our air, soil, and water, and depletion of our resources.

The good news is that, as of June 1, several municipalities in the region, including Mississippi Mills, will expand their collection of plastic to include numbers 3 to 7 inclusive, with the exception of plastic bags and styrofoam. The bad news is that so much plastic remains unrecyclable for the time being. Research is currently being done to find ways to convert plastic to liquid fuel without any harmful by-products, but is still at the experimental stage.  Having said that, it remains much more cost-effective and environmentally beneficial to avoid producing plastic in the first place.

Use your power as a consumer to buy, where possible, products that incorporate recycled materials.  By doing this, you are increasing the demand for recyclable materials, thereby making it easier for recycling companies to find markets for these materials.  Outdoor decking material, fencing, windows, carpets, and jackets are just a few examples of such products.

In many ways plastic has become an indispensable part of our lives, and has reduced the threat of extinction for many animals and plants, the depletion of mineral resources, and the labour required to supply many of our needs. Unfortunately, unlike metal, wood, cotton, silk and wool, it lasts FOREVER!

So perform that plastic surgery NOW!