On March 21, I attended an event titled “Plastic Purge: How did we get here and what do we do about all of this plastic?” at the Rocky River Public Library, co-hosted by the Rocky River High School Environmental Club and The League of Women Voters of Greater Cleveland, Rocky River Chapter. The guest speaker was Dr. Michael SanClements, author of “Plastic Purge: How to Use Less Plastic, Eat Better, Keep Toxins Out of Your Body, and Help Save the Sea Turtles!”
I loved this event – I thought Dr. SanClements did a great job talking about the history of plastic, and how we have arrived at the monstrous plastic problem we face today. He talked about how over the course of history humans have had different ages: The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, The Iron Age, and now we are in The Plastic Age. He likens the plastic problem to an invasive species: It is not all bad, and arguably plastic saves lives daily, but it has become “invasive” and we have too much of it in the wrong places.
I found his explanation of the history of plastic to be interesting. The beginning of plastic originated from trying to find a replacement for the ivory that was inside of billiard balls. Ivory was expensive, so a cheaper alternative was sought, and plastic was born. Then, plastics were in high demand during World War II. Plastic producers popped up all over the place and were working at full capacity, producing acrylic, nylon and polyethylene, for war needs.
When the war ended, plastic was not in such demand, but there now were many plastic producers in the United States. The decline in demand once the war ended was anticipated by the Society of Plastics Engineers, which had been formed in 1942. After the war, there was high demand for products that had not been available during the war and the plastics industry discovered they could fill many of those needs. However, the public did not like plastic yet, so the Society held plastic expos that showcased plastic products, and this created a public perspective shift.
Since then, we all know what happened. Pretty much everything in our lives is plastic. Try to go even one hour without touching plastic – it’s impossible unless you are sleeping (and if you have a memory foam pillow or bed topper, you’re touching plastic all night). From the minute we wake up in the morning we touch plastic all day: alarm clock, light switch, toothbrush, toothpaste, phone, computer keyboards, milk jugs, coffee makers, etc.
Plastic is incorporated into almost every task of our days. Again, I’m not saying that all plastic is bad, because it’s not. It’s just incredible how this material has become so crucial to our lives, when prior to World War II no one was using it, at all. And really, that wasn’t all that long ago.
Yes, the world has a huge plastic problem that humans created and that humans can also solve. It is estimated that there are 51 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, which is about 500 times the amount of stars in our galaxy. Currently about 50 percent of the plastics produced worldwide are for single-use items, which are used on average for 12 minutes each.
Only about 10 percent of these plastics are recycled, and even when they are recycled it’s a problem because plastic is not easy to recycle: there are all different types of plastic and they are hard to separate. On the contrary, metals and glass are easy to separate for recycling purposes.
Dr. SanClements made sure he was clear on the fact that there are many good plastics out there such as ones used for medicine, and there are terrible uses of plastics out there such as wrapping single slices of cheese. These single-use plastics are the ones we all can do something about.
We can vote with our dollars and not purchase the cheese wrapped individually in plastic; we can drink water from our tap instead of plastic bottles, we can bring our own bags to the grocery store and we can refuse a straw. The solutions to the plastic problems already exist, as it was not that long ago that humans lived their lives every single day without plastic!
I challenge you to see how much plastic you can avoid when you go to the store. We as consumers can drive the market to stop producing single-use plastic, so let’s all do our part by voting with our dollars! Also, please go to your library or bookstore and pick up a copy of Dr. SanClements’ book, "Plastic Purge."