What’s the actual Story with plastics anyway Reilly?
Plastics, a brief intro - explained
Disneyland imagine that. That is where our story will start in the 1960s. Jesus Reilly, where are you going with this already?
In a theme called “house of the future” a house was built entirely from plastic and was shown off to the public, propaganda maybe, yet over 20 million people visited the house which opened the eyes to Americans all over. Dishwashers, storage units, TVs, Microwaves – all plastic. Yet the issue was prevalent from the beginning with the grounds requiring heavy machinery to break the house down into small pieces and deconstruct it – showing a sign of things to come (Jesus Cathal your hindsight 20/20 vision is unreal.... I know).
Now, fast forward to our generation – its noted that every single piece of plastic ever produced, still exists!
How scary is that? In 2015/16 we produced over 322 million tons of plastic, which eh, is a lot. Enough to fill every single skyscraper in the good ole NYC full of plastic from top to bottom. Now, for 60 years since mass production began, we have produced 7.8 + billion tons of plastic waste which is the same skyscrapers filled 23 times over.
And you know what, as usual, I’m going to take a different approach with this, the Narcissips approach, maybe a realist’s approach, or maybe a young cynical boy’s approach but how and ever, I hope we will all learn something and as my favourite word is perspective, above all I hope we can get some from this. I think perspective is one of the most important words that can always teach us something or help us view things in a different light.
Plastics – demonized lately yes?
But how about this, if plastic didn’t exist, neither would our modern world. Plastic is a core component to modern travel, medicine, laptops and even our mobiles. How many of us want to sacrifice our laptops or mobiles now? (Sometimes I wish I could to be fair).
Nah didn’t think so...
So as usual, over the last two years at Narcissips my approach has been to highlight the real issue. **Drumroll Cilla Black typed theme music for our Blind Date answer and yes, you knew it - IT’S US!
While plastic is detrimental, we are the users, consumers and you know what again, the ABUSERS of plastic. We are the ones that dictate where the plastic ends up after every use. We are the ones that don’t choose to recycle goods that are for the most part, perfectly recyclable.
It’s something I get a lot, “Reilly, what’s the deal with your reusables, sure plastic is recyclable you’re just trying to make a fast buck you divil”.
Nah, while plastic is recyclable for the most part, only a tiny percentage actually gets recycled properly either from being put in the wrong bins in the first place, being put in recycle bins yet being non-recyclable then as they are not “Clean, dry and Loose” or “contaminated” which defects everything it touches in the recycle bin, or its just laziness and discarded plaguing our paths, beaches, parks and hikes.
It’s a people issue, not a plastic issue. (for a lot of what I see anyway).
Anyway – here’s one for you, my bottle names mostly come from Greek philosophy, (I know you have heard it before, but if I care that much about bottle names like Eos, Icarus and Heracles, imagine how much I care about you and the plastic problemJ) you know what else does – PLASTIC, which come Plastikós, meaning to shape or bend which was formed in the 1930s initially called Bakelite after the first man who made plastic which was super strong, a great insulator, doesn’t conduct electricity, lightweight and extremely durable.(yes, that is how much thought I put into things :) ) It was even used for Nylon Tights mind you. Also, it was made from a concoction of alcohol and petroleum (wow) what a waste of alcohol and yeah, ew, petroleum.
So, what is Plastic? Carbon monomers (unsure what that really is, its a scientific term) that use reactions to form bonds between these chemicals together similar to a bike chain to hold themselves together as plastic.
There are then two types of plastics then, Thermoplastics and Thermosets.
Thermoplastics are your Nylon tights, polyester, which can be recycled in certain places and thermosets which are extremely rigid and used for cars, airplanes, electrical fittings and even weapons. So, the issue here, going back to what’s used to make it. That’s a lot of common items, that require a lot of fossil fuels to make them (Petroleum).
So, the car, I love a nice car to be honest. But, Henry Ford, Mr. “you can have any colour you want once it’s black” used plastics for everything in the early 1900s - for electrical fittings, insulation, spark plugs and light fittings for your car. Even the glass in your car was fitted with plastics to help make it less shatter proof.
The interesting thing though, Henry Ford then tried to make his own plastics because well, economics and supply chain management. He turned to Soybean Based plastics which he wanted to use to actually build cars as they
would be more lightweight meaning more fuel efficient. Sounds great right? Even in today’s age. But what happened?
War, World War II. The Americans had realised the potential that plastic had when it came to fighting and winning wars as it could help make Jets lighter and faster, better armor and better artillery as plastic was so much lighter than the metal that was once used.
Asia at the time had conquered the rubber market which meant rubber was also out of the question, so America turned to its petrochemical companies for reliance which ended up pushing the use of plastic in tires for tanks, parachutes, ropes, inside fittings and eventually by some was contributed as key to success of beating the Nazis.
Wow Reilly, plastic helped beat the Nazis, I know right.
But once the war was over, what happened then to what was once required for all this plastic?
So, wait until you hear this;
The plastic industry goes from war to peace, with an actual quote from a tights company in America at the time;
“Here is a pair [of new nylon tights] being tried on, during office hours, men will of course be noticing the lack of wrinkles around the foot” Jesus I thought to myself reading that...that wouldn’t fly today I would say but anyway. Thank god some things move on and for the better.
1950’s, the boom in America for televisions, why, plastics made them cheaper and more affordable to the masses with over 100,000 being purchased every week. Over 40% of families in America also relied on, well, condoms, which are, well, a component of plastic. The 1960’s then came along and one of the things that really annoys me comes to the fore, the plastic bag! (God bless the plastic bag tax in Ireland in the early 2000’s). we were using 1 million a minute of these worldwide, now that’s horrendous.
The 1960’s were the symbol of the plastic revolution with cling film, pianos, houseware Tupperware, everything – I Beg to wonder was this all just a great marketing plan / scheme by the American petrochemical plants but who will ever know.
But here’s another one for you, the Moon landing, what is that flag made out of? Yep, you guessed it, Nylon – also Plastic! Plastic has made it to the moon like.
In 1950 we produced 60 oil tankers of plastic a year, fast forward to the 1970s, we produced 2000 oil tankers per year which is the same weight as 140 empire state buildings in NYC. Now, who loves a Coke? Or maybe you’re a Pepsi guy or gal? I’m sure a lot of us remember a time when our milk or cola bottles came in glass bottles? A better life, a simpler set of times right? Well, what happened– Money Happened, Plastic happened.
Money speaks and with plastic being so lightweight, those cola companies saw a fortune to be made in savings from efficient forms of travel, supply chain management, production and everything to do with getting your cola bottles from one place to the next saving fuel consumption and even general bottling costs as plastic was much cheaper than glass. This is the usual PET bottles we still drink out of today, but yes this is recyclable and becomes extremely popular but again I will say this, the issue is a lot of it doesn’t get recycled!!!!
This is what leads to the massive issue we are facing now, how do we cope with changing behaviours and habits regarding something that is cheap to produce, lightweight, durable and of which can be somewhat indestructible? This is why we are now seeing great garbage patches composed of plastics in our oceans, being washed up on our beaches, filling landfills and harming wildlife. Scientists estimate (even though they don’t know for sure) that it takes over 450 years for these plastic bottles to biodegrade! How nuts is that.
This is why with our mass consumption; plastic pollution is one of the big issues of our generation.
Low and behold, the Mobius loop and recycling practices which are becoming more prevalent finally enter the mainstream. Yeessssssssssss – the power of recycling, did you know recycling plastic bottles can now be turned into soccer gear (shout out to Wolfhound and Elk, an Irish brand changing the game, literally). Recycling one ton of plastic also can save over 1000 litres of oil, creates jobs and is so much more efficient for remaking plastics rather than creating virgin plastics. (https://wolfhoundandelk.com/about-us & Granada Soccer club in Dublin whose kits are made by the aforementioned).
Sounds great but less than 20% of plastic worldwide is actually recycled!!!! Why, I’ll go back to my usual answer – US, we are the problem! Why do we always play the blame game and pass the baton?
But anyway, in plastics defense, they are also vital for medicine, for fighting disease, making prosthetic limbs for those in need, pacemakers, hearing aids, car seat belts and even firefighters and bodyguards protective wear due to its resistance to bullets and heat. So, you might say plastic is saving our lives too. Mad...
Plastic makes our lives much better, but our inability to consume it consciously and correctly is leading to the issue. We are harming wildlife, we are ruining the environment, we need to change...our behaviours. A garbage truck every minute, is said to be released into the oceans every minute, imagine next time you’re eating your sushi, you’re actually eating the plastic you didn’t recycle properly? Will that help you change?
So again, going back to the issue as I feel I have spoken somewhat too positive about here, plastic, again, it’s made from oil, therefore it’s so toxic to marine and aquatic wildlife, sea birds and everything else that is unfortunately ingesting this are dying each year in their thousands! (not to mention the fact that fossil fuels are the leading cause of Greenhouse Gases contributing to the climate crisis). It’s estimated that over 100,000 animals a year die from plastic. By 2050, it’s also stated that the ocean will be filled with more plastic than fish.
In 2018, studies also showed that plastic residue was found in human waste, I don’t want to say the actual word but what I will say it makes a pun about plastic being very easy here...
For me anyway for the most part, plastic is laziness. There is no need for as many single-use items in our lives, we can bring reusable containers to the butchers even if we wanted!
Anyway, the solutions, plastic eating bacteria... maybe? Choosing to reuse all the time...maybe? Or maybe, new ways of making plastics like Henry Ford did almost 80 years ago!!!! Same as the usual craic, over 100 years ago electric cars were founded which had pretty decent range and speeds yet only now do people think they actually were?! Nuts. This is why I say the best time to buy a reusable narcissips bottle was 20 years ago, the second-best time is today because the sooner we dedicate ourselves to change here the sooner we can make a difference!
So, with most things in life, and yes often I get too philosophical, but the problem isn’t always the problem, it’s our reaction to the problem.
What’s done is sadly done but let’s focus our attention and energy on making a difference and solving the problem, starting today commit to one positive ACTION that will lead to a good habit in your own life. There is no point in crying over spilled milk, let’s take our first steps, if we haven’t already on our sustainable journey today! (p.s. I’m slightly lack toast and tall or tent (and a bad speller), so I definitely won’t be crying over spilled milk).
Anyway, some quick facts about Irelands Plastic Problem;
36% of the plastic that goes to get recycled, gets burned due to contamination.
Of all the plastic ever produced, 30% is still in use and 60% in landfills (estimated).
17/18% of every household’s general waste is single use plastics.
We recycle 64% of most recyclable items in Ireland according to the EPA, good but not great.
It takes 1⁄4 of the size of your plastic water bottle worth of oil to make that same plastic bottle
It takes more than 3 times the amount of water to produce the plastic bottle than what is actually in the plastic bottle (yes, certain countries are going through a water crisis right now as well e.g., Chennai in India and Cape Town, South Africa, Flint Michigan USA) So also feel lucky in Ireland that we have access to clean water for the most part with no need for fancy water bottles or filtered water etc. we can literally walk 8 steps to our kitchen. #Perspective
Lastly, what we can do to combat Irelands Plastic Problem;
Tax the problem in my eyes anyway, remember the plastic bag tax, it worked. A) You tax people who want to use plastic still and use the proceeds to solve the problem or you deter people from buying single-use plastics.
Prevent yourself, buy reusables (Cough Narcissips), say no to plastic, avoid it wherever you can and choose to reuse. It’s all about habits!
Recycle properly, loose dry and clean – prevent contamination (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle)
New innovative solutions, we discussed biodegradable plastics earlier – I’m hopeful many solutions will come!
Supply & demand, ah yes, another business student ranting about supply & demand but it matters, next
time you go into your local shop, choose the unwrapped fruit and veg, make a start. It will work, we keep buying the goods wrapped in plastic, they will keep supplying the goods wrapped in plastic.
Chat to your friends & family, open other people’s eyes, lead the way, start the conversation, pick up some plastic on your walk even. It’s something I try and do every walk and it will make a difference either because one less plastic bottle is defecating our parks or others will see you and follow suit, or others will realise you’re picking up their little and might stop! (hopefully)
Treat yourself to a stainless steel, insulated reusable bottle from Narcissips, it may not solve the world’s problems, but I guarantee you it will be the best, most stylish and affordable first step you will take on your sustainable journey.
Anyway, if you have made it this far, thank you very much and I hope you have learned something or even got some new perspective on the plastic issue, if so, please let me know.
I hope this was a light-hearted read as I don’t want it to be anything else, all we can do is our best and I understand sometimes we just want an easy life, there is no point in worrying about what we can’t do and only do what we can.
It’s why I always say the best thing about sustainability is there is so many ways to start!
There are so many ways that can even suit us personally from those who work at home and start de-plasticating their household goods, to those who can walk to the office or stop buying fast fashion etc. Much like personalities, we are all different and we can all contribute to the climate crisis and plastic problem in our own wayJ(But I’m hoping Narcissips Reusable Bottles can meet everyone style, hydration and sustainable needs all the same ha-ha cheeky I know)
Lastly, I’m hopeful, there’s little point in being anything else but think about it – in 100 years we got men on the moon, built AI and even Tamagotchi’s- remember them? But anyway, I am confident our best brains can solve this with all our individual help too!
Cathal O’Reilly, MSc, ACA www.narcissips.com