Life Before Plastic
Plastic is everywhere. Picture your home – fabric on furniture, food storage containers, non-stick pans, clothing, and shampoo and body wash bottles. Remember your last trip to the grocery store – virtually everything is packaged in plastic.
Plastic has been around for quite a while, but did you know that plastic is made from petroleum? It was first introduced commercially in the early 1900’s – plastic was used to manufacture radios, cameras, rotary telephones, jewelry and buttons. It was also used extensively in WWII for nylon parachutes, windshields in airplane cockpits and liners for soldiers’ helmets.
Plastic manufacturers made millions during the war. After the war they turned their focus to consumer products so they could continue to make money. Most of the plastic products up until that time were made to last. However, an August 1, 1955 Life magazine article introduced the concept of throwaway living. The article showed a family with items flying in the air around them saying why should the average housewife spend forty hours a week cleaning these items when they could be used once and then thrown away.
Those of you who are a bit older may remember the milkman bringing glass bottles of milk to the back door of your house and picking up the empty ones. Or taking empty glass bottles of soda in a sturdy wooden box to the store to be reused. Or watching the butcher place a pound of hamburger in a paper tray and wrapping it in paper.
Those of you who are younger may not have those memories. Plastic may be all you know. The plastic manufacturers have been very successful in marketing the idea that plastic is benign – but it is not.
Plastic does not biodegrade like a banana peel or apple core or even a cardboard box or a wooden plank. Eventually these all break down and return to the soil. That isn’t what happens with plastic. Plastic photodegrades which means the sun and heat make it brittle and it breaks into smaller and smaller particles called microplastics. These never go away – they just get smaller and smaller. Our use of plastic has increased exponentially over the last 70 years and microplastics are now found everywhere on the planet – from the top of Mt. Everest to the bottom of the Mariana Trench – and in our bodies.
Plastic is not recycled like you have been led to believe. Less than 9% of all the plastic ever created has been recycled. The rest of it is in the air, in the soil, in the ocean and in landfills. It is cheaper to make a plastic product from virgin plastic plus the plastic collected for recycling is often dirty or made of more than one type of plastic which complicates the recycling process. The whole idea of recycling is one the plastic manufacturers marketed even though they knew from the very beginning that it would not be effective. The chasing arrows symbol on plastic only tells what type of plastic it is. It is no guarantee that it will be recycled. Being recyclable is very different from actually being recycled.
Let’s take a step back and learn how to do things the way they were done before single-use plastic became so prevalent. Instead of using multiple plastic shopping bags when you visit a store, invest in a few reusable cloth shopping bags. Instead of drinking from a plastic water bottle, invest in a stainless-steel water bottle that will serve you for years. Instead of storing your food in plastic containers, try Pyrex or even a glass bowl with an inverted plate on top. Instead of purchasing your food encased in plastic, shop the bulk aisles with your own containers. Instead of buying personal care products in plastic bottles, give bar soap and bar shampoo a try. Support local businesses who offer plastic-free items or spend a few minutes on the Internet searching for a plastic-free alternative to whatever you are looking to buy.