How plastics came to be and why it’s hurting us now
by Kathy Xu
China accounts for almost a third of plastics use in the world, and recent studies have shown that the bulk of plastics found in the world’s oceans come mostly from Asian rivers. Exactly how big a role does Asia play in the plastics problem?
To begin, let us retrace the history of plastic. Synthetic polymers, more commonly known as plastics, have become such an integral and quintessential part of our everyday lives. Today, we hardly stop to think about how much plastic we use each day. We rarely even question how plastic made its first appearance into the world.
The creation of the first ever industrial use plastic—which was cotton fibre-based cellulose treated with camphor,—dates back to 1869 by American inventor, John Wesley Hyatt. It was then known as celluloid, and it was the first known pliable material that one could shape into anything desired.
Fast forward to 1907, Leo Baekeland took celluloid a step further and developed the first fully synthetic plastic that did not use any plant-based molecules. This came to be known as Bakelite. The word "plastic" originally meant "pliable" or "easy to shape". Bakelite came about at a time of global industrialisation and it was an advantageous material that was a good insulator of electricity.
Plastics are made from the hydrocarbons of carbon-rich raw materials such as natural gas, oil, and coal. Simply put, plastics are chains of molecules, called polymers, composed of several repeating units of building blocks of molecules called monomers. These chains can be combined into different arrangements. Plastics are highly malleable, and can be made into a limitless variety for various uses. It is also chemically inert and will not react with other substances.
Plastics for its countless uses, have become so pervasive and integral in our everyday lives. From food, to the healthcare industry, to transportation, home appliances, and right down to the not-so-obvious plastic products such as clothes, the foam in our kitchen sponge, and the coating layer of our non-stick cooking pans. They can be manufactured easily at low costs, and help make everyday life significantly more convenient.
It is impossible to live a plastic-free lifestyle, primarily for the sake of convenience, efficiency, and hygiene. In fact, humans have produced a staggering 8.3 billion tonnes (about one billion elephants in weight) of plastics to date since the 1950s.
Where have these plastics gone? Landfills, and rivers, lakes, oceans.
The use of plastics boomed. No one saw a problem creeping in until the 1970s, when reports of plastic fragments floating in the remote waters of the Northern Hemisphere surfaced—and they were affecting marine life. Plastics do not disappear as quickly as we would like them to. They contain toxins such as DEHP (di-ethylhexyl phthalate) that leach out, absorb more toxins, get broken down—but do not ever biodegrade.
Plastics that end up in the ocean do not disappear even as they break down into microplastic—smaller bits of microscopic plastic debris. Microplastics include synthetic fibres, microbeads from hygiene products, and other plastic waste that is broken down. They are easily ingested by marine life, and are mistaken for food. Plastic ingestion often leads to choking and starvation of marine species. Some marine life get entangled by debris and drown. Others die a slow and painful death of accumulation of plastics in their digestive systems over time. In recent news, it was reported that a pilot whale found in the Thai canal died from starvation, as over 80 plastic bags were found in his stomach.
In the North Pacific Ocean, approximately 100,000 marine mammals die annually due to plastic entanglement and ingestion. Worldwide, studies examining the stomachs of various bird species showed that 50 to 100 percent of individuals had ingested plastic fragments. The plastics contamination of oceans proves massive indeed. Even in the remotest of Pacific Island, Midway, dead albatrosses were found with their stomachs full of ingested plastics.
Currently, there are no methods available for the observation and quantification of nanoplastics in aquatic environments and organisms. Plastics have definitely been creeping into far and wide reaches; in deep sea creatures, bottled water, and basically all of our oceans.
90 percent of all the plastic that reaches the world's oceans gets flushed through a mere 10 rivers: the Yangtze, the Indus, Yellow River, Hai River, the Nile, the Ganges, Pearl River, Amur River, the Niger, and the Mekong. In China alone, rising affluence and income levels have prompted higher consumption rates, and in the last 60 years, it has hit a 20 per cent share in plastics production globally. Even in the most secluded and deepest of all oceans, the Mariana Trench of the Pacific Ocean, at approximately 11,000 metres in depth, has not been spared from plastic presence.
Many Asian countries have shown awareness of the issue and have taken some steps to improve the situation. China, in the 2008 Olympics, did take action in banning use of thin plastic bags and imposed a tax on thicker bags on retailers, although it was not properly enforced. Some countries in Asia have also included bans and taxes on plastic bags, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Taiwan and Malaysia, to varying degrees.
However, it is also easy to forget that plastic use is more often than not, used not by choice but due to living circumstances. In less developed Asian nations like Indonesia and Philippines, plastic use is rampant. It is easy to forget that with limited spending power, those less well-off are more likely to purchase everyday necessities such as toiletries and beverages, on a day-to-day basis that they can easily afford, rather than bulk purchases which are actually more affordable and sustainable in the long run. These come in cheaply made plastics sachets rather than full-sized jars or bottles. Sadly, the reality becomes a complex problem where sachets help low-income communities have access to these products, but end up becoming a waste nightmare, especially without proper recycling and waste disposal methods.
The affluent demography in the more advanced nations are not blameless in the equation as well. The rising popularity of coffee pods as a seemingly magical way of conveniently obtaining freshly brewed coffee, also pose a huge environmental nightmare. In Asia Pacific, 1.1 million units of coffee pod machines were sold in 2014, three times as many as in 2009 alone. In affluent Asian cities of Singapore and Hong Kong, 66,900 and 21,300 machines were sold in 2014 respectively, a six-fold increase for Singapore from 2009.
Plastics in the food industry do have some benefits in aiding prevention of bacterial infection and food borne diseases. It also prevents food wastage by prolonging shelf life with the packaging, and makes food easy to distribute. However, once food packaging is discarded into the environment, the problem sets in. Plastics take up to five hundred years to decompose, and their presence in our environment poses various health threats, many yet to be determined due to insufficient information.
What we do know, is that plastics ingested by marine life get passed onto humans through the food chain. Research has shown that there is a direct link between man-made plastic trash and our seafood. About one in four fish from Indonesian markets were found to contain microplastics.
There have been some challenges in assessing the health risks that come with long-term exposure to chemicals found in plastics. Part of the difficulty is due to the fact that it is nearly impossible to find a group of individuals who are unexposed to plastics to act as a control group for studies.
However, one does not need exact research to illustrate how plastics have already affected human health. For example, when humans ingest plastic, it can cause blockages in the gut, and reduction in energy conversion in the body. As plastics break down into microplastics they would then have wider surface areas, increasing the possibility of environmental pollutants contained in the microplastics getting absorbed into body tissues through ingestion. In medical devices such as plastic IV bags, DEHP substance (a common chemical compound used in making plastic products) makes up about 40 to 50 percent of the product. This chemical drips directly into the bloodstream without giving the gut a chance to detoxify and naturally expel the DEHP.
Are there any good enough substitutes for the omniscient material in the meantime? In terms of packaging, there many substitutes made out of agricultural waste like mushrooms or other compostable materials. Products in the market include Ecovative's mushroom packaging, the E6PR eco friendly 6 pack rings, and Greenboulevard’s edible potato starch bags.
There is rising awareness about the plastic problem, and cities around the world are increasingly trying to enforce plastic bag bans. However, in many Asian countries, it is likely that plastic use will continue to be pervasive due to necessity. Plastic alternatives are good steps forward in eliminating plastics, but the question over the affordability and cost-efficiency of these alternatives still remain, and awareness alone does not solve the problem. It remains to be seen how alternatives can become mainstream and accessible, and whether they can diversify quickly enough for as wide a variety of uses as plastics does. Much is still left uncertain, and greater thought needs to be put into the plastics problem to properly curb the issue in Asia differently from the rest of the world.
Kathy used to write marine and environmental stories at Kontinentalist. She was history-trained but does other things now instead, like running an ecotourism shark conservation business, The Dorsal Effect. When free, she enjoys being in the ocean, trying to spot some sharks or just home cuddling with her cavvie, Danea.