Is Plastic the Bad Guy?

What is Plastic?

The term Plastic (think "plasticity") means malleable or pliable. Plastic is now more commonly used to refer to synthetic or semi-synthetic substances made from polymers*. In the last 150 years, people have made synthetic polymers from naturally occurring materials, but more commonly from readily available carbon atoms in fossil fuels including petroleum. The length of these polymers, and their recurring pattern, is what makes them lightweight, impervious to water, durable, and flexible. i.e. It's what makes them "plastic". It's these properties alongside the low cost and ease of manufacture, that have made plastics useful and popular over the last 50 years, and caused the saturation of synthetic plastics in our world and daily lives.

*Polymers are made up of long chains of atoms, and can include naturally occurring, renewable materials like cellulose (which make up plant cell walls) and polylactic acid from corn.

Biodegradable plastics undergo environmental degradation. This includes breakdown from exposure to sunlight, water, wind, enzymes, bacteria, and attack by rodents and insects. Biodegradable additives in the plastic enhance bio-degradation by attracting microorganisms that utilize the carbon, within the polymer, as a source of energy. However, this does not lead to the complete breakdown of the plastic.

Bioplastics are sustainably produced from plant materials such as cellulose and starch.

Plastics, the Environmental Saviour

John Wesley Hyatt invented the 1st synthetic plastic in 1869 in response to a $10,000 offer by a New York firm for a substitute material for ivory. A growing demand for billiard balls (used in cue games such as snooker or pool) had placed an increasing strain on the supply of natural ivory acquired by the slaughter of wild elephants. Hyatt crafted the first industrial plastics and made them to imitate natural materials such as tortoise shell, linen, horn and ivory.

As nature's resources are limited, this invention was considered revolutionary. Hyatt's plastic would ease demand on natural materials, and manufacturing would no longer be restrained by the limits of nature. Hyatt's development was heralded as the saviour of tortoises and elephants: Plastics would protect the natural environment and meet human needs, without the burden of environmental destruction.

The 1st fully-synthetic plastic was invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland. This plastic, called "Bakelite", would contain no molecules naturally occurring in nature. Bakelite was created as a good electrical insulator that was durable, heat resistant, and suitable for mass production to meet the rapid movement towards the use of electricity.

Fueled by the success of Hyatt and Baekeland's polymer inventions, chemical companies invested heavily in the creation of new plastics with new properties. The new plastics were not created with specific uses or characteristics, but rather with the intention of assigning a function and purpose to them post-creation. This was followed by a boom in the USA during WWII when a 300% increase in plastic production was seen as the material demonstrated its flexibility in numerous ways. New uses for plastic included Plexiglas aircraft windows, Nylon parachutes, ropes, and helmet liners. The surge in production would continue after the end of the war and today we find plastics incorporated in to everything from packaging, toys, automobiles, furniture, information and communication technology, building applications including plumbing and electricals, and many uses in the medical field. Plastics also prevailed over many traditional products that used natural materials.

Plastics lifted pressure off limited natural resources and became an essential material that reduced the cost of living, increased access to better living conditions including housing, safe access to water and electricity, and improved medical care.

In the year 1950, an estimated 2 million tonnes of plastic was produced.

Since then, the world has produced approximately 6,300,000,000 tonnes of plastic

with over 300 million tonnes produced in 2015.**

...& The Fall from Grace

Plastic is no longer viewed as univocally positive. Plastic waste was first discovered in ocean debris in the 1960s raising concerns on the impact of plastics on the environment. Many plastics are single-use and disposable, yet plastics continue to remain in the environment forever. As awareness increased on plastic pollution, and concerns on the impact on human health began to mount, the popularity of plastics began to plummet. The plastic industry offered recycling as a solution and led an influential drive for municipalities to collect plastic waste. The 1st recycling plant was opened in 1972 for residential plastic waste, and by 1986 the 1st US city mandated recycling. Recycled plastics were incorporated in to furniture, packaging, and by 1993 recycled plastic bottles were used to create soft durable fabrics and outdoor clothing. By 1997, recycled plastics were used to create food-grade products like toothbrushes, food containers and kitchenware.

Yet, less than 10% of all globally produced plastics have been recycled.**

Someone Else's Problem

An estimated 12% is incinerated, and almost 80% of all globally produced plastics end up in landfills and in the world's oceans (3%). Much of the plastics consumers believe have been recycled at local mills, are shipped overseas to become someone else’s problem.

An announcement by the Chinese government on a ban on the import of international plastic waste into China, brought in to effect in 2018, resulted in a 49% decrease in exports between 2016 and 2018. i.e. the total export of plastic waste has halved since. More countries are expected to follow this ban. China is the highest producer of plastic waste, however the daily plastic waste per person per day is one of the lowest, with further restrictions on plastic usage being made. Additionally, when considering the amount of plastic waste exported for recycling, that is illegally discarded in dumping sites overseas instead, the percentage of actual recycled waste could be expected to be much lower than recorded statistics.**

Out of Sight; Out of Mind-set

This is a similar narrative to our own waste management problem in Sri Lanka. With 300 open-dumping sites in the country (Ministry of Environment), and following the tragic events of Meethotamulla in 2017, little progress has been made in the island to curb plastic waste. Would we have the same lackadaisical attitude to single use products and packaging waste if the dumping site was our own backyard?

The Meethotamulla garbage dump "landslide" occurred in the morning of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year causing 32 deaths, 8 missing persons, the destruction of 145 houses, and affecting a total of 1,765 people. Following the collapse of the site, the daily 750 – 1,200 tonnes of garbage being illegally dumped at Meethotamulla by the Municipal Council was diverted to alternative sites.*

What do we do now?

While it's clear that there needs to be a global upheaval, along with Sri Lanka, for better waste management and the dismantling of a throw-away culture, as individuals we can change our own behaviours and habits.


Avoid All Single Use Products (whatever they are made of!). This includes single use plastics such as shopping bags, bottled drinks, straws, styrofoam packaging, bubblegum, single use cutlery, coffee cups and pods, clingfilm, cotton buds, and balloons. Additionally, cutting the use of single use paper, glass, and other materials reduces the strain on natural resources and reduces dumping of waste in landfills. Reducing the use of single use items clears up space for waste management of essential and/or reusable items. If it's a single-use product, consider if you can substitute it with a reusable alternative.

An estimated 50% of plastic waste produced is single use waste.

42% of all plastic waste is from the packaging industry.

Find feasible alternatives to single-use products and packaging.**

This simple approach could potentially HALVE global plastic waste production, and reduce the annual production of plastics.

Here's a link to a group in Sri Lanka that will collect your recyclables (not just plastics!)


ADVOCATE. Call for, and support, the improvement of domestic recycling. For pre-packed goods, seek and support brands that seek alternatives to non-degradable or single use products, and provide a collection point and recycling solutions for the materials they use. Practices in USA have shown that recycling initiatives work better with "single stream" community collection points with clear instructions on plastics being collected. Campaign your local supermarkets and corporates to provide local collection points for recyclables sold via retail branches, and to ensure delivery to responsible and functional recycling plants.

Let's not repeat the tragedy at Meethotamulla.

For plastic pollution to truly and genuinely be addressed, manufacturers of plastic products need to be pressured to create closed-loop productions i.e. polymers from recycled plastics need to be fed back into production lines, rather than the continued purchase of new plastic raw materials. Unfortunately as this is not the cheaper option for manufacturers, this is unlikely to occur on a local or global scale without external levies, restrictions, and penalties.

Spread Visions (Not Plastics)

Merijaan is a start up that turns plastic pollution in to usable products. Gianna Mews and Isabella Artadi from Marijaan have set up in Sri Lanka to run a pilot project. Merijaan provides monetary incentives for locals to collect plastic waste from the ocean and beaches. The waste plastic is shredded, mixed, and melted into creative new products. Their primary products include recycled plastic racks for surfboards and phone case covers. The team intends to expand on this collection by producing supplies for local schools, and functional household items such as tiles and stools. Isle of ARTisans will be supporting Merijaan's plastic recycling incentive by designing new and creative products out of Sri Lanka's ocean plastics.

"Driven by the responsibility for our environment, we set ourselves the goal to upcycle plastic waste – to make this world more sustainable and our oceans cleaner. Spread visions, not plastic!"

- Gianna Mews, Founder of Merijaan

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