Living in the plastic period
BEFORE you read this just take a look around you, count how many things are made of or involve something plastic.
Unless you're a fundamentalist luddite or living in a time capsule from 1788 chances are it's in more places than you thought.
My earliest memories of plastic started with Matchbox cars, Ninja Turtles and Transformers.
Just as most children I doubt I would have had as much fun in my childhood without plastic.
For, as we can all see, plastic is no doubt an amazing invention.
A necessity of modern production that has been the base of many breakthrough technologies that have both saved lives and prevented disaster.
Think of all the medical applications, from syringes to heart valves, plastic is there for us when we need it.
From a personal perspective for instance, my mother was left an amputee and I seriously injured after an horrific car crash.
Without the use of plastic in prosthetic limbs she would not have been able to even attempt what you and I take for granted everyday.
As for me, I was left with a plastic replacement bone for most of my childhood without which I could see myself enjoying or perhaps even surviving. Speaking in general though, a prime example being that if we didn't have plastic piping we wouldn't even have drinkable water, the one necessity of life, in our homes.
For these reasons I have no aversion to plastic, only its unnecessary and luxurious use.
Because as global population, poverty and conflict grow, in large parts of the world hygiene, health and prosperity are on the decline.
To what measure does plastic play a part in our current environmental crisis? For instance, it is widely stated that for every plastic bottle it takes a quarter of that bottle's volume in oil to produce. So as oil stocks dive and Australia's plastics recycling rate floats at around 15%(PACIA, 2012), are we doing enough to make our futures sustainable?
Our dependence on fossil fuels (a limited resource) cannot last forever. On average the United States disposes of 2.5 million plastic bottles per hour.
The natural world is facing increasing pressure from our consumptive ways. Has progress become paramount to health?
What effects will these ways have on both our and the environment's present and future?
To know the present it's important to understand the past so the historical perspective on our synthetic other should be considered.
Plastic has been part of our lives since the late 1800's.
It was ironically first made from plant materials (cellulose) and dubbed as a saviour to the natural environment.
First developed as a replacement for ivory it was also cheaper to produce than extracting natural resources such as wood and metals.
The first fully synthetic plastic (polymer) was Bakelite which was promoted as the "material of a thousand uses" as it could be moulded into anything and once set, would never melt. It therefore became a substitute for natural materials such as wood, coloured glass and metal.
Although a breakthrough, plastics' developmental timing couldn't have been worse. Plastics dependence on coal for production, the great depression followed by First World War somewhat stifled it's advancement.
The First World War took a huge toll on the environment with weapons, defence and uniforms all dependent on the availability of natural resources. As these resources became more scarce and harder to extract they became less financially viable to produce.
Luckily for the United States the discovery of huge oil deposits throughout the 1900's led to the 'Texan Oil Boom' which peaked in 1940. Bakelite and other polymers provided new materials for parachutes, windows, mechanical parts, ropes and body armour.
In the Second World War the Germans were still largely reliant on steel and wood, often recycling a lot of their broken or destroyed supplies.
America on the other hand was shipping out disposable plasticised components enabling them to resupply units with new food, medical, and weapons stocks. Freeze dried items were a huge part of this advance too. Medical serums and foods were all oxygen deprived and wrapped in plastic to prolong storage life.
Towards the end of the Second World War however, displacement of people, destruction and disaster, capitalism started to take their toll on the international economic system.
An agreement was met in Bretton Woods (1944) by the world's most powerful leaders to try and stabilise the global economy.
This ushered in economic exorbitance otherwise known as "The Golden Age of Prosperity" or perhaps "The Plastic Age".
For the production of plastic ran parallel with the post war marketing and advertising that drove consumerism and globalisation.
More than fifty years later plastics have become less of a luxury and more of dependence. When you actually stop and have good look around you they are everywhere.
From the plastic lining of packaged foods, the construction of electrical goods to the materials in the clothes we wear. Have we thrown caution to the wind a little too hastily?
Studies from the scientific community are more and more regularly pointing to the negative effects of plastics' life cycle.
For instance, we have plastic food and drink packaging leaching chemicals into our bodies that are directly linked to such diseases as obesity and cancer. 5 trillion partially degraded pieces of plastic in our oceans carrying pollutants up the food chain and onto our plates.
As well as colossal landfills forever enlarging with computers, TV's and other disposable consumer electronics unable to be recycled, as they cannot be deconstructed.
If you're looking at your bottled water, computer or meal differently right now that's a good thing. Sustainability is a buzzword that in recent times seems to have lost its meaning within the public discussion.
Even so, its importance is something that cannot be denied. If we can understand the life cycle of our purchases then we are one step closer to achieving sustainability.
Being sustainable is undeniably our only way forward as a society and at the moment plastic is not a subscriber to that ideal.
However, new advances in the areas of 'Bio' plastics are making strong headway into the production of sustainable plastics.
We are using everything from corn to prawns to develop a mass produced 100% naturally biodegradable plastic.
We are constantly chasing our tails with plastic's impact on the natural world. This can only be stopped if the manufacturing of plastics changes to a more sustainable and enviro-centric model.
To do this, extensive pressure must be put on the industry. The easiest way to effect an industry is economically. People's purchasing power drives markets that sustain industry.
Put simply, if you want a better world, buy it.
Your environment has a lot to do with your consumer choices, after all.