Fueling the plastic industry

Photo courtesy of NOAA.

When you think of plastic, you may be picturing everything from your child’s toy truck to your grocery bags. Plastic consumption has dramatically increased in recent decades; in fact, the production of plastic in the past six decades has outpaced any other manufactured material, nearly doubling in the past twenty years. Plastic is woven into our synthetic clothing, floating in the ocean as microplastics, and of course, holding your morning iced coffee.

How did it begin?

Although we are all familiar with plastic products, do you know how it’s made? We have to go back more than a century to the creation of Bakelite. This 1907 invention was the “birth of modern plastics” – it was the first synthetic polymer derived entirely from fossil fuels. Jump to post World War II, large-scale production of plastic began, expanding beyond the military for the first time. Petrochemical companies established to feed the war effort, turned their attention to the consumer market, creating plastic products like Tupperware and soda bottles.

This revolutionary invention was created from petroleum byproducts, producing a material with an atomic structure that allows it to be strong, lightweight, and flexible – the ideal material for crafting unique shapes, colors, and sizes.

“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,” says journalist Susan Freinkel.

Plastics Today

Today, plastics have seized our markets and become a staple part of every day life. Nearly 99% of plastic is produced from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, but the majority of plastics are not biodegradable, meaning our reliance on single-use products has led to a dramatic increase in society’s waste generation.

The largest consumers of plastics are countries with advanced economies, measuring nearly 20 times more plastic usage than developing countries such as India. And although efforts to curb plastic use are underway in places like Europe, this gap in consumption will vastly outweigh these efforts if this trending growth continues.

This gap will easily be filled by plastic producers who view this as an opportunity to increase production capacity. An estimated $50 billion will be invested in United States production facilities alone, tripling the amount of plastic exports to these developing regions. With the boom of natural gas within the US, plastic production has become cheaper and more cost effective than ever to produce.

As society turns away from fossil fuels and looks toward renewable energy sources, fossil fuel companies are also shifting focus to plastics. Many petroleum companies now produce the gas for your car and the plastic in your water bottle.

What Can We Do

Plastic pollution is a worldwide problem – it’s affecting our waterways and poisoning habitats. But a global problem, demands a global solution. We must mobilize key actors, institutions, and citizens to bring about change.

So what can you do? Start by limiting your usage of single-use plastics! Bring a reusable coffee cup to pick up your morning drink, purchase reusable mesh produce bags for the grocery store, and make sure to properly recycle any plastic you do consume. Small steps can make a big difference. Once you’ve added these changes into your daily routine, you can begin educating others, reaching out to local elected officials – the role you have to play is limitless!

Sarina Katz is the communications & outreach manager at Restore America’s Estuaries.

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