Speak to an archaeologist about some of the significant eras in the human population of these British Isles and it is likely that they will speak about the importance of the Bronze and Iron Ages.
In history we also learn about the industrial revolution and how the use of fossil fuels to produce steam alongside important economic changes fundamentally affected society.
But what about now? What will define our contribution on Earth? When archaeologists look back at our current time period undoubtedly it will be known as the plastic age. (1). The plastic won’t be hard to miss. Any archaeological trench that gets dug will most probably contain pieces of plastic that originated from the significant number of items that our modern world demands.
As I compose this article and look around the room I can see examples of plastic everywhere from my clothing, glasses, television, water bottle and even the iPhone that I am typing on, plastic has found its way into all aspects of our life. So much so that developed countries would struggle to survive without it.
Horribly most of the plastic items that we use are disposable and all that plastic ends up in some shape or form in a bin.
According to an article published by the National Geographic in December 2018 out of the 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic the world has produced a whopping 6.3 billion has become plastic waste with only 9% of it being recycled. The article goes on to say that ‘If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.’ (2). That is some statistic and really exemplifies the scale of the issue. In fact plastic is such a disposable commodity that a study by Professor Roland Geyer of the University of California at Santa Barbara concluded that half of all plastic currently used is thrown away within a year of production. (3).
Most of this plastic ends up in landfill sites where it will remain buried but a significant amount finds its way into the planets waterways, streams and rivers, and as a result into our seas and from there to every corner of the world causing environmental consequences that we are just starting to comprehend.
To understand the issues regarding plastics it is useful to have a little knowledge of the chemistry behind these molecules. Plastics are an example of a group of molecules called polymers. Most are produced from chemicals called alkenes which are derived from crude oil, a non-renewable material that has its own environmental concerns. Under the right conditions these molecules (or monomers) can be encouraged to react with each other to join together to form long chains called polymers. By changing the monomers used, the conditions and incorporating different additives a huge range of plastics can be produced with a variety of properties for a myriad of uses.
The polymers themselves have strong bonds between their atoms which require a large amount of energy to break them and additionally as these chemicals are not found in nature living things are unable to break them down. This means that the plastic molecules are non-biodegradable and once produced persist and pollute our planet.
Evidence of this persistence has been witnessed in the last month when plastic waste was found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth at a depth of 11km, this is 2km deeper than Mount Everest is tall (4). However, you don’t have to go nearly that far to see plastic in the ocean. A trip to the nearest beach will provide ample anecdotal evidence of the issue.
As a child I was lucky enough to spend many of my holidays on the beaches of Southern England and Northern France looking for crabs, shrimps and other creatures living in rock pools.
I still love the beach and try to get to one whenever I can. Just today I spent a bit of time crouched over some rock pools on a North Yorkshire beach. Looking carefully I could see evidence of an active ecosystem. Under closer inspection the rock pool also contained an incredulous amount of plastic waste. The beach itself seemed clean. In fact the shoreline was incredibly clean, I saw no evidence of plastic bags, bottles or other litter. Indeed the beach itself had been awarded a 2018 blue flag award (5), however closer inspection revealed the real issue.
Within one minute of looking through the rock pool I had found a handful of small pieces of plastic. Evidence that the sea is full of it. The fragments of plastic were of varying colours and were all of a size that could be eaten by a variety of sea creatures looking for a tasty meal -see photograph.
This is the issue that has been highlighted by Sir David Attenborough, arguably Britain’s most famous naturalist (6). Plastic in our oceans is a huge problem. It is everywhere. Large pieces of plastic like bottles and bags are mistaken by predators such as dolphins for their prey and can kill these majestic creatures.
The smaller and microscopic pieces of plastic are ingested by smaller animals and enter the food chain slowly poisoning the animals as the chemicals increase in toxicity in a process called bioaccumulation. This affects the fragile ecosystem from the bottom up slowly destroying the entire food chain.
We are the problem, you and me, the consumers, the human beings who use plastic everyday and every day just throw it away without thinking.
So what are the solutions? How can we stop the damage that we are doing?
Well, we could stop using plastic altogether. This is a pretty extreme response and would be difficult to do. As we have already considered plastic is pervasive it’s in nearly everything we use. Plastics have unique properties that we would struggle to replace with other materials. Currently without alternatives removing plastics from our lives would fundamentally affect how we live, it would be hard for society to make that change.
How about biodegradable plastics? They exist, they are already part of what we are doing, but are they the answer? The jury is out. These plastics do breakdown naturally in the environment when they come in contact with oxygen and water but some evidence suggests that as they decompose they persist in the environment as micro-plastics continuing to poison the ecosystem (7).
The third option is, as consumers, to be more aware of our consumption of plastic items and be responsible both as individuals and as a society of production, use and disposal of plastic items. Maximising the recycling and reuse of plastics will slow down further production and the release of these harmful polymers into the environment.
The science will catch up. Eventually more effective biodegradable polymers will be designed that will be truly environmentally friendly. Perhaps some clever people will come up with a completely new alternative material. Until then all of us have a responsibility to help clean up our world and prevent the plastic age irreparably affecting our planet.
We all need to be determined, on it all the time, to reduce the amount of plastic we consume. We must consider our use and find alternatives where we can. When we buy items we need to take note of the packaging and avoid goods with excess plastic.
Importantly, we all need to make a concerted effort to reuse plastic items; bags and bottles especially. And when these items have had their day we all need to dispose of them appropriately . This means ensuring that plastic waste that can be recycled is recycled.
Simply put that’s the message. That’s what you, me, all of us can do. It’s an old message but an important one.
Reduce, reuse and recycle.
Not much to help save a planet!
- Are we living in the plastic age?, Danny Lewis, Smithsonian.com, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/are-we-living-plastic-age-180957817/ last accessed 26th May 2019
- A whopping 91% of plastic isn't recycled,Lauren Parker https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/ last accessed 26th May 2019
- Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made, Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law, Science Advances 19 Jul 2017:Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782, https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782.full last accessed 26th May 2019
- Deepest-ever dive finds plastic at bottom of Mariana Trench, Euronews, https://youtu.be/0CTbfy6R2iQ last accessed 26th May 2019
- Blue Flag Beaches, https://www.blueflag.global/ last accessed 26th May 2019
- Global Cause, https://www.globalcause.co.uk/plastic/sir-david-attenborough-plastic-and-our-oceans/ last accessed 26th May 2019
- Biodegradable plastic ‘false solution’ for ocean waste problem, Adam Vaughan, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/23/biodegradable-plastic-false-solution-for-ocean-waste-problem last accessed 26th May 2019