ANNE MARIE WATERS’ SUNDAY COLUMN
The Ebb and Flow of Plastic
Sunday June 14th 2020
It has been a difficult week in Britain, one of several recent difficult weeks. Yesterday I attended the early part of a protest in central London that later turned ugly. Those of us who are passionate about the defence of our country and its heritage, were once again smeared by the presence of violent thugs who couldn’t care less about either black lives or Winston Churchill.
The press and mainstream politics as usual are keen to defend left-wing rioters and sell their propaganda as fact, while portraying patriots as protesting only to involve ourselves in violence. It is a sorry state of affairs. Join me on my livestream on Monday evening at 7.30 pm for a detailed discussion.
Be sure to tune in also on Thursday, when I will release a speech outlining how our country must now bring this wave of street anarchy to an end, and how we then move on.
Today however, I thought perhaps a distraction would be welcome. We have countless issues to face, and therefore countless discussions to have, so in a brief change of focus today, I’ll address a rather different matter and cover my scheduled topic as planned – the Ebb and Flow of Plastic.
This is a fascinating subject, and to my mind, one that demonstrates how complex seemingly straight-forward issues can actually be. There is no doubt that we have a huge problem with plastic pollution and waste management, and we must find an answer to this, but the plastic dilemma is not quite that simple.
So, what is plastic and where did it come from? More importantly, how did it revolutionise the world?
The Birth of Plastic
Plastic wasn’t born in 1907, but that was when it began to really make its mark. Prior to this, in 1869, John Wesley Hyatt responded to an advertisement in a New York newspaper. The ad was seeking someone to find an alternative method of creating billiard balls – a game growing in popularity and putting increasing strain on the ivory market; the substance used to produce billiard balls. Obviously, this growing billiard ball market meant an increase in elephant slaughter, and it is here that we meet our first complexity of plastic.
Today, plastic is seen (rightly) as a threat to some wildlife. At its origins however, it relieved pressure on wildlife, and is likely to have saved 10,000s of elephant lives. Indeed it was lauded at the time as the saviour of both elephants and tortoises.
Hyatt’s work led to the first plastic – a product that could be shaped to imitate other products previously made from ivory, wood, or metal. Though there are a variety of different types, the production is described by Plastics Europe, the industry representative body, as follows:
Plastics are derived from natural, organic materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil. Crude oil is a complex mixture of thousands of compounds and needs to be processed before it can be used. The production of plastics begins with the distillation of crude oil in an oil refinery. This separates the heavy crude oil into groups of lighter components, called fractions. Each fraction is a mixture of hydrocarbon chains (chemical compounds made up of carbon and hydrogen), which differ in terms of the size and structure of their molecules. One of these fractions, naphtha, is the crucial compound for the production of plastics.
Two main processes are used to produce plastics – polymerisation and polycondensation – and they both require specific catalysts. In a polymerisation reactor, monomers such as ethylene and propylene are linked together to form long polymer chains. Each polymer has its own properties, structure and size depending on the various types of basic monomers used.
The use of fossil fuels in the production of plastic is one that will be debated by environmentalists no doubt for the foreseeable future. However, the fossil fuel debate is entirely separate from the central environmental concern raised by plastic – waste management.
Hyatt’s discovery was followed by the next significant leap in the progress of plastic in 1907. This was the year that Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite – the first fully synthetic plastic. This plastic was easier to mould, more durable, heat resistant and suitable for mass production. Next came huge investment in this product-with-endless-possibilities, and plastic went mainstream.
During the Second World War is when it truly came in to its own. ScienceHistory.org describes its uses at the time:
World War II necessitated a great expansion of the plastics industry in the United States, as industrial might proved as important to victory as military success. The need to preserve scarce natural resources made the production of synthetic alternatives a priority. Plastics provided those substitutes. Nylon, invented by Wallace Carothers in 1935 as a synthetic silk, was used during the war for parachutes, ropes, body armor, helmet liners, and more. Plexiglas provided an alternative to glass for aircraft windows. A Time magazine article noted that because of the war, “plastics have been turned to new uses and the adaptability of plastics demonstrated all over again.” During World War II plastic production in the United States increased by 300%.
The growth and growth continued after the war as plastic came with limitless possibilities; it could be transformed in to an endless line of products. This included live-saving products, but just as importantly, and indeed revolutionary, was its price. Plastic would improve living standards beyond anything that could have been predicted in 1869 or 1907.
The impact of plastic is impossible to quantify. In her book Plastic, Susan Freinkel outlines the scientific and social impact of plastic, perhaps most significantly in medicine. A hospital today will depend on a variety of plastics to save lives, resources that would simply not be readily available otherwise. Life-saving machinery, syringes, drips, tubes, and incubators are all included.
Plastic also caused an explosion in our standard of living. It provided the ability to store food, increased sanitation, and made entertainment easier and cheaper to access (games, children’s toys etc. became cheap and widely available). Plastic furniture and household products made domestic life easier and cheaper, and as Freinkel argues, made life so much easier as to shift focus from domestic hardship to the public realm, thus increasing the participation in democracy.
‘Economic democracy’ refers to the impact of economic progress on the growth of democratic participation, and plastic has played a historic part in this advancement.
Freinkel wrote of a changing market economy:
“In product after product, market after market, plastics challenged traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s and ’80s that the reputation of plastic began to wane. Health concerns were increasingly expressed surrounding the chemicals included in its production, and the possibility of these making their way in to human bodies via the use of plastics for food storage and cookery. The second major concern was pollution and waste management; the world’s seas and oceans had become plastic’s burial ground, and its impact on animal welfare shifted from positive to negative.
Plastic Oceans is an organisation committed to cutting of the route of plastic to our oceans “within a generation”. It makes the following claims.
- 52% of sea turtles are believed to have ingested plastic
- There is 22% chance that a turtle will die from ingesting a single piece of plastic
- 100% of turtle species have now been observed entangled in plastic
- Approximately 5.5% of turtles have been found entangled in plastic; 90% of these are already dead
- There are approximately 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world’s oceans
According to ConserveTurtles.org “over 1 million marine animals (including mammals, fish, sharks, turtles, and birds) are killed each year due to plastic debris in the ocean.”
Moreover, microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic which come from larger plastics that have degraded over time – are now also floating in our seas in staggering numbers. World Animal Protection reports that “in 2014, an estimated 15 to 51 trillion microplastic particles were floating in the world’s oceans, weighing between 93,000 and 236,000 tonnes.”
There is little debate that despite plastic’s enormous impact on our lives (so profound that it is often described as the fourth industrial revolution), it has come at a cost.
This complexity means that we cannot remove plastic from our lives, but nor can we continue in the current vein. There are changes we can make, and make them we must.
Current efforts to reduce the negative impact of plastic on our environment are often sound, but the political will to implement them is severely lacking; particularly in the countries that are responsible for most pollution.
The world’s largest polluter is (unsurprisingly) China. The plastic waste from China is far higher than that of the United States in second place. China’s rate is 60 million tonnes per year, while America’s tally is 38 million tonnes.
China has no environmental or animal welfare protections and so it will continue to pollute unless the rest of the world puts economic pressure on it to stop. The much-needed global will to ‘stand up’ to China is unlikely to emerge short of political revolution (something I believe will take place in the next two decades).
The United States must also take responsibility for its waste output and commit to meaningful change.
In the meantime however, recycling is the answer, assuming it is done correctly. Some studies estimate that most rubbish intended for recycling ends up in landfills regardless. The onus here is on local authorities, who must be held to account and required to effectively carry out the recycling they promise.
Research in to degradable forms of plastic is also crucial. We must find a cheap and safe alternative to the current chemical make-up of plastics, so that they are less likely to linger around the earth for potentially 1,000s of years.
Even if all of the above were committed to, it still does not solve the problem of the plastics currently inflicting our waters, and it is here that ‘blue sky thinking’ is needed.
What if we could remove the plastic from our seas and recycle it? Then recycle that ad infinitum? For the long term future of our environment and ecology, we can and must build an entire new global industry simply by re-utilising all of the plastic we’ve already made. It would save our seas, our waste problem, and create millions of jobs.
The fact is there are solutions to this. We can keep our much loved (and needed) plastic products if we come up with new and cleaner ways to do so. We can easily clean our seas if we wish, all that is absent is the political will.
That is what For Britain will provide. Join us.
Anne Marie Waters
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