As a young and budding environmentalist, I would be remiss if I do not talk about the current movement in several countries of the world to ban the production and use of single-use plastics.
It’s a movement because it is happening at a pace I could not have anticipated. This series will focus on a little history of single-use plastics, its pollution, available alternatives, and effects on the economy and livelihood.
This part will just be a little introduction to the history and pollution of single-use plastics.
The emergence of plastic is not even 200 years old. It began with Alexander Parkes in 1862 with the creation of Parkesine. While trying to develop an alternative for shellac (A material used as an electrical insulator and for waterproofing). However, his experiment was not a success, so he advertised it as an alternative to ivory.
In 1869, John Wesley Hyatt further developed Parkesine into what he called celluloid.
The first synthetic plastic was developed in 1907 by Leo Baekeland (a Belgian Chemist) while also trying to create a replacement for shellac by combining formaldehyde and phenol. While it didn’t work as a replacement for shellac, he discovered that by manipulating temperature and pressure, it can be molded into different substances. He named it bakelite.
In 1933, polyethylene was accidentally produced in Norwich, England.
In 1960, plastic debris was spotted in the ocean.
In the 1960s, plastic utensils were introduced in restaurants to cut labor costs.
In 1965, Gustaf Thulin Sten, a worker at Celloplast in Sweden, perfected what is known as the T-shirt plastic bag, which marked the beginning of a new era for plastic bags. It was created to address concerns of deforestation to make paper bags.
In 1979, plastic bags became available as shopping bags in the US.
By the 1980’s the opposition to single-use plastic bags had begun.
By 2002, Bangladesh announced the implementation of a ban on thin plastic bags because it was discovered to cause clogging in drainage systems.
In 2008, Rwanda implemented a ban on ubiquitous plastic bags.
In 2014, Cameroon announced a ban on the import, production, and sale of non-biodegradable plastics.
In 2015, Senegal announced a ban on plastic bags.
In 2016, Antigua and Barbuda announced a ban on single-use plastics while Columbia announced a ban on plastics smaller than 12×12 inches.
In 2017, China announced a ban on single-use plastics, Zimbabwe declared a ban on polystyrene, Tunisia announced a ban on non-biodegradable bags, Kenya announced a ban on plastic bags.
In 2018, Romania announced a ban on thin plastic bags, Albania announced a ban on single-use plastic bags, Georgia announced a ban on plastic bags.
In January 2019, Samoa implemented a ban on plastic shopping bags, straws, and styrofoam products, and South-Korea announced a ban on most plastic bags.
Several other countries have announced an intention to ban single-use plastics.
While it’s essential to appreciate this movement designed to protect the environment, we must also remember the original intention for the invention of plastic bags. They were designed to conserve energy and reduce the felling of trees for the purpose of paper bags and cups, which were rampant before the invention of plastic bags/cups.
If we choose to consider it from the production aspect, plastic requires less energy and water for production than paper or cotton bags. And it was not initially designed for one use only. On the other hand, the disposal of plastic has resulted in a global crisis because it takes about 500 years for biodegradation of plastics, and not all plastics can be recycled. This had led to the disposal of plastic in water bodies. These plastics are broken into micro-plastics.
Due to their size, micro-plastics, which are now present in aquatic animals, are transferred to human beings. Micro-plastic can absorb harmful toxins present in its environment, and when it builds up in the body can be detrimental to the human body. Burning of plastic can also result in the release of toxic chemicals into the environment.
This situation has resulted in countless debates about how best to secure the environment while minimally affecting the livelihood of the common man.