Until fairly recently, scarcity governed the existence of most people. Manufactured items were made of wood, metal, cotton or wool cloth or maybe leather. Items were repaired and reused or handed down to the next generation. The twentieth century brought population increase and the mass production needed to meet demand for new products. Marketing managers discovered planned obsolescence, that is, products were designed to wear out and be replaced with new items. Fashion designers promoted new styles of clothing making us want to the buy the new styles of clothing and other articles. Were it not for the invention of a new material, we might be running out of trees and metal ores, two of our traditional raw materials. That new material is plastic. Now, it is difficult to find anything that isn’t plastic or, at least, partly plastic.
When it became less expensive to buy a new item than to repair the old one, we began to discard large quantities of manufactured materials. That called for a new innovation, landfills. The first landfill in the U.S. opened slightly more than 80 years ago. Currently, we have more than 2000 landfills. Landfills are not designed to promote decomposition of their contents because that process can release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Landfills are a continuing management problem because they do emit methane and other gases, and because they may leak contaminants into the ground water.
Plastic products make the disposal problem more difficult. We have manufactured plastic items that are used only one time and then discarded. Plastic bags, plastic bottles, fast-food containers, filter tips on cigarettes and other plastic items often don’t make it to the landfill or to a recycling facility. They litter the landscape. Plastic breaks up into small pieces, but it doesn’t decompose. No one knows how long plastic survives. We are a throw away society; we throw, but stuff doesn’t go away.
In 1600, sailing ships left England on their way to the East Indies islands of Borneo, the Celebes, Java, the Moluccas, and Sumatra, to purchase spices. They returned to England two and a half years later. Those sailors traversing that vast ocean could not have believed that it would be possible for humans to throw away enough of anything to contaminate the oceans that cover 70 percent of our earth and that are miles deep in some places. But today, the oceans are contaminated with plastic and man-made chemicals. Discarded plastic is carried by wind and rivers to the oceans. The fragments are ingested by fish and sea birds and that can be fatal. Small sea creatures consume the plastic, and it works its way up the food chain to humans. According to marine biologist Philip Mladenov, we harvest nearly eighty million tons of seafood each year. Plastic also damages coral. Plastic fragments have been found in the oceans in significant concentrations. Some types of plastic contain toxic chemicals; some do not. But, strangely, plastic picks up toxic chemicals like a sponge when exposed to toxins in ocean water. Industrial facilities in the United States and around the world have routinely dumped their industrial waste in rivers. Some of that waste washes into the oceans and some of it is toxic.
Seventy-five years ago, soft drinks were sold in glass bottles. The customer paid a deposit on each bottle and recovered the deposit when the bottle was returned to the store. The bottling companies sanitized the empty bottles and reused them. Plastic is a more difficult challenge. Many different chemical formulae are used to make plastic products. One formula is used for water bottles, another formula for plastic grocery bags and a different formula for plastic toys. If the plastic is to be recycled, it must be carefully separated by type. Plastic is an inexpensive product. The greater cost is management of the plastic after it has been discarded. Susan Freinkel reports in Plastic: A Toxic Love Story that seventy percent of the world’s used plastic goes to China where cheap labor is utilized to remake the scrap into new products. Eighty percent of the plastic toys that we Americans buy for our children are made in China.
Researchers are working on biodegradable plastics. To date, they have had very limited success. In any event, converting food producing land to growing crops for plastic production could have adverse consequences in a hungry world.
The Russian Sputnik launched in 1957 was the first “man-made” object in low earth orbit. It came down. The U.S. Strategic Command tracks more than 17,000 “man-made” objects in orbit. The estimated number of small bits of trash in earth orbit is staggering. Polluting the oceans was unimaginable, but we did it. Polluting the universe is a bigger challenge, but we have made a start. Meanwhile, we have a plastic disposal problem close to home.
Jack Stevenson is retired, served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.