How plastics have saved the environment
In the second half of the 19th century, there was a burgeoning need for the type of household equipment that we now take for granted; everything from piano keys to bench-tops to tyres to glues to waterproof sealants, and more. There was also a need for cheap insulating materials for the new electric power that was being distributed to middle-class homes - electric kettles, light switches ... you name it – people wanted it, and cheaply. (inventors.about.com)
Think of how many elephants would need to be slaughtered to provide ivory; how much rubber would need to dribble slowly from trees and be harvested by locals at below-award rates to satisfy these needs, if there were no plastic substitutes or vastly improved polymer products such as car tyres and pipes for plumbing.
Moreover, if all the furniture needed to be made of natural materials such as wood and leather, then the world's forests and livestock capacity could not keep up; and the environment would be harmed by the processes and toxic chemicals required to manufacture these into useful items. The expense of this would also be immense, and it would take land away from important food crops.
Similarly, our Earth simply cannot produce enough wool or cotton or flax or silk for all the clothing you wear. The newly-developed Nylon® was used to replace scarce silk for parachutes during World War II, and it later found a use after the war for stockings – and other clothing and textiles.
Since then, we have a huge number of major innovations from Kevlar® (parachutes, sails and bullet-proof vests) to medical devices from syringes to life-saving implants … and everything in between. They are light (therefore take less fuel to transport around the country), non-toxic, hygienic and durable. Today, everything you touch will have some 'plastic' component.
How plastics are harming the environment
However, recently, I read an article about the plastic waste in Sydney Harbour after the spectacular fireworks on New Year's Eve (au.christiantoday.com) even though only a small proportion of the fireworks had plastic casings. The fireworks company, Foti International Fireworks, states that in future they will ensure that only biodegradable cartridges are used; as they are proud of the fireworks display being 'carbon-neutral' this year. (www.smh.com.au)
This reminded me of a 'Catalyst' (ABC TV) program from August 2012 which reported that not only do the birds eat floating plastic pieces, thinking they are edible fish, but also that poisons naturally present in minute quantities can be concentrated on the small, broken-down plastic pieces, and be distributed in our environment that way. (www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/3583576.htm) and (news.nationalgeographic.com.au)
And to top it off, on January 20th I heard the repeat of an ABC Radio National interview of English environmentalist Barry Commoner – recently deceased - who has been publishing his findings on these problems since the 1980s and has highlighted the widespread problems of the poison, dioxin, produced when plastics are incinerated. (www.abc.net.au)
Clean Up Australia on March 3rd
The only short-term solution is to recycle as much plastic as we can, and to store the rest (the major portion) in secure disposal areas. As suggested in this 'Clean-up Australia' fact sheet, we can all be vigilant to ensure as little plastic as possible enters the environment. (www.cleanup.org.au)
We can also help by collecting rubbish to ensure safe disposal, by getting involved locally in 'Clean-up Australa Day' on Sunday March 3rd (Tues Feb 26th for businesses). (www.cleanup.org.au/au)
For the longer term, research and innovation is continuing: degradable plastics are now being made; natural soil micro-organisms (the 'good guys') are being bred to 'eat' plastics in a process called 'bioremediation' or 'biodegradation'; enzymes (biological catalysts) isolated from these 'bugs' may do the same job in industrial processes; and some plants, such as mushrooms, may help with removing plastics. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodegradation
Some scientific terms are used differently in common language: a science lesson!
Polymer: comes from two Greek words "poly" = many and "mer"= parts. Natural polymers include proteins, DNA, carbohydrates and fats. They are long strings of many molecules containing mostly carbon, hydrogen and a variety of elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, chlorine (and others). Plastics are man-made mimics of these natural molecules; sometimes with 'added extras', such as fluorine in Teflon.
Organic: means 'any carbon-containing compounds' including man-made plastics. Originally, it referred to substances made by living things, but in 1828 chemists made these exact-same compounds in the lab, the definition was changed. 'Organic' as used in the food industry is totally unrelated to this.
Chemical: while mentioning the food industry, note that everything in this world (except a complete vacuum) is made of chemicals; including the air you breathe, the water you drink and all the biological compounds that make you a living being.
'Carbon-neutral': indicates someone has made an effort to reduce pollution. This is commendable, but scientifically impossible. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that not all of the inputs (fuel or energy) can ever be used to make useful products or more energy; some is always 'waste', such as carbon dioxide or heat during burning or metabolism in our bodies. The less useful energy is called 'entropy' (disorder), and it is always increasing in the Universe as a whole, so that in the long-term, all systems are slowly running 'downhill'. We can conserve as much as we can in our small corner of the world, but we cannot stop it.
This is not something just made up by scientists and mathematicians. The Bible mentions this Second Law of Thermodynamics in three places,. Isaiah 51 verse 6: "... for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner: but my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished."
Back to plastics: in conclusion
We cannot turn back the clock. Plastics are useful and helpful to our society, and we and the environment have benefited from them immensely. To solve the pollution problems, we need more passionate young people to train as scientists to be inventive and innovative in finding solutions that we haven't thought of yet.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html