I loathe plastic. I detest plastic. I even… No, before I become downright abusive, I must put a question or two to the reader.
Tell me: did anybody ever love plastic? Or even admire it? Did anybody even ask for it? Not that I know of. It was simply there, all of a sudden, dumb and unlovable, elbowing everything else aside. True, Mr Baekeland’s original invention (early “Bakelite”) soon cracked and splintered, but it opened the door to a new era. By the end of my schooldays, an exhibition of plastic (“The Material of the Future”) was doing the rounds – a collection of tubs and trays, blocks and balls, nothing very beautiful or usable, but no doubt with Potential. A mere decade later I found myself, to my consternation, in snackbars where they no longer bothered to wash up the cups, plates and saucers – they simply threw them away after every meal. Soon thereafter, of course, everything in the shops was being packed in plastic, thick or thin, some in the form of jars and bottles that were uncommonly hard to open and almost impossible to close again.
The ultimate plastic horror only dawned on me later on a consultancy mission to East Timor, a place full of natural resources; out there, close to a jungle settlement, I encountered piles of broken plastic chairs and tables, thrown out of the way and with the weeds already creeping over them. One day, when the dinosaurs return, they will trip over dumps like this and wonder loudly who left all this mess behind. In the meantime, the seas will be empty because all the fish will have choked on a hundred million tons of drifting plastic debris.
Why did all this have to happen? Over several millennia, mankind had proved mightily ingenious at using whatever material the Almighty had created, fiddling a little with it where necessary. We had turned skins into leather, sand into glass, iron ore into steel, latex into rubber and bird products into feather beds. The results were sufficient, often superb; is there anyone, even today, who has tried sleeping in a true feather bed, and who after that would gladly lie on a plastic foam mattress again?
No, we have to do something about plastic. A mere individual can at least come to grips on a tiny scale with the problem. Last summer I took the family to the supermarket, equipped with baskets and string bags; we nosed around, turning down anything that was packed in plastic: when we found food in cardboard boxes we made sure that there were no plastic bags lurking inside. It took time, but we came home with a decent haul and a clear conscience.
For society as a whole I see three approaches. Firstly, we need to stop producing the stuff. With unemployment burgeoning across the world, there is every reason to go back to hand work, turning away from mass production of synthetics and instead using more of Nature’s gifts.
Next, one might set the world’s Navies at work to filter the seas and its Armies to clear the countryside of plastic waste; that should keep them busy enough for a while to get their minds off shooting one another.
Finally, we shall have to get rid of the millions of tons of the stuff that we are already saddled with. But how? If we burn it (and some of it refuses to burn) we pollute the atmosphere and accelerate global warming. If we bury it, we mess up the earth, which already has quite enough to put up with. Years ago there was a tale in the papers about an Austrian professor who had found a microorganism that delighted in eating plastic; alas, that trail collapsed when the bug developed intractable indigestion. There are some recyclable plastics; some are even degradable, but they don’t degrade under all conditions and the stuff they leave behind can be revolting, indestructible and even poisonous. Did you know that some of the plastic that they use to make bottles is composed 56% of chlorine, which is not nice stuff to have around? Nylon, which is made from oil, may be just about forgivable, provided one can be sure of getting the oil back whenever our nylon shirts and stockings are cast aside, hopefully in favour of wool and cotton.
Plainly, the scientists still have a lot more to do, and someone will have to pay them to do it. If even they don’t entirely succeed, let’s get the Space people to shoot the wretched residue in small portions up to Venus, or some other place where it won’t be in the way. Not in our way, at least.