BY NOW, it is just a question of which heart-rending image you choose. There is the hawksbill turtle struggling to free itself from a plastic bag. The sea of polystyrene trash floating over a Caribbean nature reserve. Or the sperm whale washed ashore in Spain, its stomach filled with plastic waste.
Since the introduction of mass-produced plastics in the early 20th century, humanity has produced an estimated 8300 million tonnes of the stuff. Around three-quarters has been thrown away, and 80 per cent of that has drifted into the environment or gone into landfill. Eight million tonnes a year end up in the ocean – 5 trillion pieces and counting.
It is an environmental catastrophe and a human one, too, as some people in parts of the developing world live ankle-deep in filthy, non-biodegrading plastic trash. The long-term health implications for all of us remain uncertain, as ingested plastic works its way up the food chain.
Everyone agrees something must be done. From banning plastic straws to rebooting recycling systems to harnessing plastic-munching bacteria, there is no shortage of touted solutions. It is less clear what would work best. But fixing the plastic waste crisis is going to take some seriously joined-up thinking. If we make the wrong decisions now, we risk making the problem worse.
If plastics didn’t exist, we would have to invent them. Generally made of oil-derived polymers, they can be hung with different chemical groups and spiced up with additives to give them wildly differing properties such as hardness, strength, density and heat-resistance. This makes them just the thing for everything from colourful, durable kids’ toys …