As we’ve become more aware of the dangers of plastic to wildlife, the environment and even ourselves, people have wondered what disease or illness plastic has been linked to.
Unfortunately, chemicals found in plastic such as cadmium, mercury and lead (some of these are not in the manufacturing process these days) can lead to cancers, immune system issues, fertility concerns and other development issues. Microplastics can also cause harm if too much is ingested.
When Was Plastic Invented?
Plastic – something we use everyday without even realizing it! You may sleep on a pillow or under a doona filled with some form of plastic! You live in a house with plastic components, you drink from a coffee cup with a plastic lid.
Plastic was created as an alternative for animal products in the 1800s as they were used for many items including cutlery, combs, household implements and others but were becoming scarce due to widespread poaching and demand.In the 1800s inventors sought to tackle this problem, looking to substances such as cork, blood and milk mixed with synthetics as well as cotton fibres mixed with vegetable oils after being dissolved in nitric and sulphuric acids.
However, the first synthetic plastic was created by Alexander Parkes in Birmingham, 1862 – artisan turned chemist. He created and patented a new material called Parkesine – the first manufactured plastic that could replace ivory and tortoiseshell. His plastic was cellulose nitrate – as above, cotton fibres and vegetable oil.
Following Parkes, many others took up his invention, with his former factory manager Daniel Spill and businessman John Wesley Hyatt creating their own versions. Hyatt would later found the Celluloid Manufacturing Company in the United States.
Who Created The First Fully Synthetic Plastic?
In 1907, Leo Baekeland created the first fully synthetic plastic called Bakelite. He had been searching for a substitute for shellac for the needs of the booming electricity needs in the US. Bakelite was perfect for electrical insulation.
Following these major inventions, major chemical companies began to invest in researching and developing new plastics and this is where it started to boom. Fast forward again to World War II and the plastic industry expanded in the US.
This was due to the need for industrial success alongside military success. With scarce natural resources being important to preserve, plastic provided great substitutes.This era saw nylon – synthetic silk – created in 1935, plexiglass for aircraft windows also entered the market. During this time, plastic production in the US alone increased by 300 per cent.
The booming market still continued post war and we saw plastic taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging and even wood in furniture. And today, we see it everywhere.
Read more about the history of plastics here.
Why Is Plastic Toxic?
What started as a revolutionary replacement for many items that was also cheap to manufacture in bulk, over the years we’ve discovered that plastic really isn’t great. It’s toxic for the environment, landfill, wildlife, marine life and even humans in some instances.
Unfortunately, as the years go on, more and more plastic products have been found to be toxic to humans. This is due to the chemicals added to plastics and then absorbed by humans, such as from water or other bottles. Microplastics entering the human body through ingestion or inhalation can also be toxic.
There have also been studies shown that certain chemicals found in plastic can leach out of the plastic and into food and beverages. This has been linked to health problems such as reduced fertility, cancers or metabolic disorders.
Remember when we found out that BPA (bisphenol A) was toxic and often found in products such as bowls and even baby bottles? BPA has been linked to cardiovascular problems, impacts on the brain and prostate and even reproductive and immune system.
How Do You Know What Type Of Plastic You Are Buying?
If you’re concerned about the impact of plastic on humans, wildlife or the environment, it’s important to know what plastic you are purchasing. It’s also important to understand if it can be recycled or reused and if there is a bioplastic alternative.
There are seven main types of plastics, with PET being the most common.
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) commonly used for soft drink and water bottles
- high-density polyethylene (HDPE) commonly used for harder wearing applications like shampoo bottles
- low-density polyethylene (LDPE) commonly used for softer applications like grocery bags and cling wrap
- polyvinyl chloride (PVC) commonly used building construction applications like pipes
- polypropylene (PP) commonly used for bottles, toys and car parts
- polystyrene (PS) used for packing,
- and other resins.
You can read more about the 7 types of plastics in this article. Each should also have a symbol somewhere on it (often the base) to show you what number it is. This also helps in disposing of the plastic.
When Did We Learn Plastic Was Harmful?
After the boom in plastics, there was some concern about the impact of plastics in the ocean. After the wide-scale use of plastics during World War II, people started getting concerned about plastic and the fact that it wouldn’t break down easily and be collected in oceans, on land and in rubbish heaps.
In the late 1960s, ocean pollution was becoming increasingly apparent and researchers started looking into plastics in the ocean. Scientists started noting marine life such as albatrosses and seals ingesting the items or getting stuck in them. Microplastics became a focus in the 1970s.
Unfortunately, the use of plastics didn’t decrease as it was beginning to be used for everything from takeaway containers and drink bottles to medical devices, packaging and building. Instead, companies started recycling programs and more education on consuming plastics wisely. The plastic resin identification code was developed in 1988 which led to the seven types of plastics and understanding which were and weren’t recyclable. In the 1990s, it was noted by researchers that 60-80 per cent of the waste in the ocean was plastic and they could see increasing amounts washing up on beaches and in harbors.
For humans, it really has only been in the last decades that the focus on toxicity to humans has been focused on. This includes consuming fish or mammals who have ingested plastic.
How Can I Stop Using Plastic?
Of course, it’s hard to completely replace plastic in our lives, but there are some steps you can take at home or in your business to start making the switch to more environmentally friendly plastic alternatives. If you’re looking to make a change, here are five small steps you can take personally to lower your landfill contribution:
- Understand the different plastic alternatives – biodegradable and compostable are two easily available options that can replace many items.
- Identify which plastics you can replace – this could be your shopping carry bags, trash bags, dog poo bags, food and drink containers and disposable cutlery.
- Buy plastic alternatives that suit your lifestyle – you can find these in many standard grocery stores as well as online.
- Encourage your family or business to go compostable or biodegradable – share the benefits and the cost of these items with those close to you.
- Ensure you dispose of correctly in your normal waste – don’t try to dispose of biodegradable in a composter or worm farm OR compostable in normal trash.
If you can manage some simple switches, your benefits will be vast. We can see the biggest benefit of using plastic alternatives as reducing your environmental footprint and contributing less issues in the manufacturing process. A typical plastic bag can take centuries to thousands of years to break down in landfill and so biodegradable or compostable plastic reduces this time vastly.
There are also less traditional plastic chemicals in biodegradable plastics which means less environmental issues in the future such as pollution, toxicity and methane production in landfill.
Read more about why we can’t ban plastic here.
What Alternatives Are On The Market?
You can find many eco-friendly plastic alternatives around! These are often made from glass, bamboo or metal to name a few. There is also of course compostable and biodegradable plastic options which will break down more rapidly in the right environment. Many companies are recognizing the market for sustainable food containers, drink bottles, bags and the like, and coming up with their own solutions.
Some eco-friendly plastic alternatives include:
– Mason jars
– Glass containers
– Bamboo containers
– Bento box made from sustainable materials
– Metal containers
– Reusable wax food wraps
– Paper food wraps
– Silicone food bags
– Metal drink bottles
– Glass drink bottles
– Glass or metal coffee ‘keep cups’
– Fabric shopping bags.
However, it’s important to understand how these are manufactured and how you will eventually dispose of them to make them 100 per cent eco-friendly. Using a product multiple times over years though does reduce your environmental footprint more than continuously using traditional plastic each meal.
Plastic is used everywhere, however, we’ve discovered over the last decades that it’s quite harmful to the environment, wildlife, marine life and even potentially to humans. When it comes to the toxicity of plastic, it’s really the chemicals in plastic that can sometimes leach into food, water or the environment as well as the microplastics we ingest.
Issues such as cancer, infertility, immune system issues, development and disability have also been linked to some plastic chemicals. Plastic was invented in the 1800s to replace animal products and has been used increasingly since then.