Brief history of synthetic plastics
Synthetic plastic was first invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian-born chemist. It wasn't until he'd moved to the United States, where he set about developing a moldable substance that could be used to make durable, long-lasting objects. Originally used to manufacture brightly coloured kitchenware, jewellery and firearms, these plastics ushered in a new era in mass-produced commercial products.
Modern day synthetic plastics
Modern day synthetic plastics are much more durable, flexible and less brittle than those of the past. This may appear initially to be a positive feature (and for a large number of reasons it is). However, our overconsumption of synthetic plastics in single use products is beginning to turn these positives into negatives.
Due to the long-lasting nature of plastic, it is a difficult material to dispose of. An average plastic bottle, for example, the bottle of water you may have purchased on the way to work in the morning, takes hundreds of years to decompose and may not be completely gone until your great-great-grandchildren are nearing the end of their lives. Is that really worth the convenience of a plastic bottle?
It's estimated that approximately one trillion single-use plastic bags are used annually around the globe - that's a staggering amount! In recent times, however, due to charges introduced on single-use plastic bags numbers have begun to drop - plastic bag sales fell by 86% since the introduction of the 5p charge in the UK back in 2017.
Alongside the fact that synthetic plastics take hundreds of years to decompose, they also bring an array of threats for our environment and wildlife. When plastic decomposes, toxic chemicals are leaked into the ground or into our waterways and oceans. These toxic chemicals have been linked directly to substances known to cause cancer - ingested by wildlife can result in death by poisoning or choking. Not to mention the number of animals that get trapped in plastic, what can lead to a slow and painful death. Images of all those poor turtles trapped in six pack rings spring to mind.
Why is plastic harmful?
The toxic chemicals that leach out of plastic can be found in almost every one of us, in our tissue and even our blood. Exposure to these substances have been directly linked to cancer, birth defects and impaired immunity. That really makes you think twice when picking up that bottle of water.
Plastic spoils groundwater
Copious amounts of plastic waste are currently sitting in our landfill. You might be thinking this is a good thing, at least it isn't floating around in the oceans, right? Well, not exactly – the plastic waste that’s been left out will soon start to release harmful toxins, which, accompanied by an array of microplastics, will then leak into the groundwater, making its way into waterways and, you guessed it, the ocean.
Plastic pollutes our food chain
Microplastics affect even the smallest creatures, such as plankton. These micro-plastics make their way up the food chain bio-accumulating in larger animals, which then suffer adverse effects that will have an impact on future generations.
If you are wondering how this affects you, then think about all the marine life which relies on plankton to survive, like whales or even smaller sea creatures like fish. The fish that will eventually make its way into a supermarket, and ultimately - your plate. Who wouldn’t enjoy their dinner with a sprinkle of plastic?
So, what can you do about this?
Most people don't realise the power the consumer has. In recent times some big companies and brands have begun to implement changes, with more bans and restrictions on plastic bags and straws recently being put into place. People are becoming more conscious of the effect our purchases have on the world around us.
Changing the world starts with an individual, it starts with you. Changing your shopping habits and choosing more sustainable alternatives, and saying 'no' to single use plastics will force the big companies to make a further change. Below is a list of everyday things you can do to change the future and make it a better place for future generations.
Avoid buying items packaged in plastic
It may seem impossible to avoid plastic whilst shopping, but it can be done, here are a few examples:
- Look for fresh produce without plastic wraps or containers.
- Buy food and drink in glass jars and bottles instead of plastic.
- Use cloth shopping bags.
- Look for alternative packaging, such as cardboard or paper.
- Take advantage of refill stations available in some stores.
Refuse plastic straws and carry your own
Plastic straws are bad for the environment and dangerous to wildlife - especially for turtles that regularly choke on plastic straws floating around in the ocean. Plastic straw alternatives are popping up everywhere you look these days, from paper to bamboo and stainless steel.
Avoid plastic when purchasing cleaning supplies and personal care products
This can be tricky, but with the right information it can be done and also have a positive effect on your bank balance. Here is a list of examples below:
- Use powdered dishwasher detergents in cardboard boxes
- Use powdered detergent for your clothes
- Opt for eco-friendly detergents – they're cruelty-free most of the time too
- Use shampoo bars instead of bottled liquid shampoo – it will also last longer!
- Use soap bars instead of shower gels
- Clean with vinegar and water (1 part vinegar to 2 parts water)
- Use baking soda (often packaged in cardboard) for more stubborn stains
- Avoid plastic scrubbers and synthetic sponges, buy copper or organic fabric alternatives
- Buy FSC-certified natural rubber gloves
Avoid microplastics and check the labels of personal care products
Some facial scrubs and other personal care products, like toothpaste, occasionally contain tiny plastic beads, which are harmful to people and wildlife. Just check the label and avoid any products with polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and nylon listed as an ingredient.
Stop using disposable plastic razors and canned shaving foam
Instead switch to using a safety razor and shaving soap bars. Re-usable toiletries are widely available now, why not purchase an environmentally friendly version, like this sustainably sourced bamboo and stainless steel razor, free from plastic.
Use biodegradable corn starch bags
Corn starch bags have been developed using poly-lactic acid (PLA) which is made from fermented sugars. They’re an excellent alternative to those pesky synthetic plastic bags. The raw material - corn is sustainable, cheap, easy to produce, and will decompose breaking down into carbon dioxide and water in just a few months under ideal conditions.
Don't buy balloons
Balloons are awful for the environment - they are produced from rubber, latex, polychloroprene, or a nylon fabric. Nine times out of ten, balloons are let go of to blow away, and eventually end up in the oceans - where they cause many animals - from sea birds to fish - to choke and die.
Use plastic-free feminine hygiene products or reusable alternatives
Most feminine hygiene products contain plastic in some way or another, and are mostly single use. Try swapping to reusable organic cotton alternatives or, if that's not for you, there are many other alternatives on the market, like menstrual cups.
Switch to organic cotton nappies
The Independent estimates that over 8 million disposable nappies are thrown away each day in the UK alone! That's approximately 3 billion disposable nappies sent to landfill each year. The plastic inside these nappies could take hundreds of years to decompose, it's crazy to think that the nappies you were sat in as a baby could still be out there sitting in landfill or polluting the ocean. Switching to organic cotton alternatives will help you lower your babies' carbon footprint, and keep your hard-earned money in your bank account.
Avoid synthetic fabrics
Synthetic fabrics are produced from plastics and other oil by-products. Most people are well aware of how uncomfortable these fabrics can be, especially if you grew up in the ‘80s or the ‘90s, when they were at the peak of popularity.
Wearing and washing synthetic fabrics causes small amounts of the fibres to flake off – these tiny fibres are called microplastics. A large amount of microplastics found in the oceans have been traced back to synthetic fabrics sources.
Below is a list of synthetic fabrics you are likely to find on the market.
Synthetic fabrics are bad for the environment, that's no secret, but they are also bad for you, the consumer. These fabrics are often dyed using synthetic dyes, and hold on the bacterial and general filth much easier than organic fibre counterparts. Below is a list of natural fibres produced from 100% natural resources.