Marvin K. Mooney is a Dr. Seuss character whose welcome has been worn out! The entire book (Marvin K. Mooney, will you please go now) is dedicated to informing Marvin that it’s time that he was on his way out, and suggesting a myriad of ways by which he might exit the scene. But Marvin does not want to leave. I suggest that this can be seen today as an allegory about the difficulty of ridding the world of plastic pollution.
Pause for a moment to consider the fact that just an eye blink ago in geologic time, the substance we call plastic was nowhere to be found. It did not exist. Nowadays there is nowhere on the planet where plastic cannot be found. From the deepest depths to the highest heights, it is everywhere.
Nowadays life without plastic is unimaginable. I am entering text from a plastic keyboard into a plastic computer and viewing it through plastic lenses on a plastic monitor. If I want a hard copy of this post, it will come off a plastic printer from ink contained in plastic cartridges. Soon I will enter a plastic walled shower stall and grab a plastic bottle of body wash containing plastic micro beads. Then I’ll brush my teeth with a plastic tooth brush and a tooth paste also containing plastic micro beads squeezed from a plastic tube that was presented to me in a plastic bag by my dental hygienist whose services I paid for with (you guessed it) a plastic credit card.
Now consider that oft quoted pronouncement by Winston Churchill that he uttered upon the rebuilding of the British House of Parliament after WWII: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” His observation describes the profound influence upon the human psyche and behavior that the “stuff” we create holds over us. It has been rightly observed that history is shaped by the materials humans develop and use. Human civilization has evolved from the Stone Age, through the Bronze and Iron Ages to what can now be called the Polymer Age or the Age of Plastics.
Back at the beginning of the 20th century the Polymer Age got its kick start with the invention of the first wholly synthetic polymer (‘Bakelite’) by chemist Leo Baekeland. By 1930, the Bakelite Corporation occupied a 128-acre plant at Bound Brook, New Jersey. Little could anyone imagine at the time that the emerging plastics industry would so radically change the ecology of the entire biosphere that it would threaten the health and well being of all life forms on the planet. Yet that is where the polymer pathway has taken us as we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century.
Back in 1967 when I first watched the film, ‘The Graduate,’ I vividly recall the scene where a businessman approaches the new college graduate, Ben Braddock, with advice about a lucrative career option to pursue – “One word: plastics.” Just over half a century later, history has proven that to be sage advice, indeed. It’s not that plastics were not already a common part of our lives by the mid 20th century. I nor any other living person can remember a time without plastics shaping our history. But the phenomenal growth of synthetic polymer based materials in the 21st century is astounding.
Case in point, more plastic has been manufactured in the previous decade than in the whole of the last century. And that’s only the tip of this plastic iceberg that will keep growing like Topsy. The growth of plastic and the resulting plastic pollution shows no sign of abating. Rather, plastic production is projected to increase fourfold by 2050. Mid 21st century is also the time frame in which it is predicted that the volume of plastics polluting the oceans of the planet will be greater than the volume of all marine life. According to ocean advocate Oceana, a garbage truck’s worth of plastic ends up in the ocean every minute.
We are are living with the consequences of the choice by large corporations to switch their supply chains and production lines increasingly over to plastic. There is a literal tsunami of plastic pollution about to inundate the planet’s already befouled and defiled lands and waters in the decades to come. That is, unless consumers cut back on their usage and demand an alternative, especially to single use petroleum based plastics. Society must somehow break the addiction to convenience plastics that the market has sold to us. No small task. As long as we keep on consuming without regard for the consequences, conventional plastic production will keep on proliferating.
We invite and urge everyone to visit the Oceana website to learn more about the problems that single use plastics pose as well as potential solutions. Oceana is building a movement to stop plastic pollution for good. Join their email list and take the #BreakFreeFromPlasticPledge. At the website you will also be able to make a commitment to stop using plastic straws, plastic bags and polystyrene (styrofoam) containers.
The fact is that we cannot recycle our way out of the plastic morass polluting the planet (only approximately 9% of plastic products has been recycled). It is critical that companies and consumers focus on reducing and not just recycling plastic. Until we are given plastic free choices, we must all choose to reduce our consumption of single use plastics in this new Polymer Age of our own creation.