Modern society is trapped. Relying on plastic, whilst needing to get rid of it

We exist in a world that is plagued by the ubiquity of plastic – whether it is the litter by the roadside or a component of a supercomputer, plastic is everywhere and that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. However, as humanity continues its endless march towards its own, seemingly inevitable, destruction, we must ask: what is to be done?

Every day, we humans encounter countless items made from plastic – from the toothbrush that you used to brush your teeth this morning, to the water bottle that you drink from throughout the day. Even as you read this article it may not have occurred to you that the smartphone, tablet, or computer that you are using would not exist without plastic.

Anybody stating that the world would have been a better place if plastic had never been invented – that we were all better off with glass, metal and wood – should undeniably be deemed to be over-simplifying the situation. The fact is that the problem of plastic is a far more nuanced one than it may appear. Humanity is advancing at what seems like breakneck speed, but few of the technological developments of the past half-century would have been possible without what is undoubtedly one of the most important creations in recent history. Much of the world as we know it today is reliant on the existence of synthetic polymers and it cannot be denied that, in many ways, the world has become a better place because of this.

Indeed, there are multiple ways in which plastic has been used to our immense benefit. Take the aforementioned smartphones, tablets and computers, for example. This technology has allowed us to reach a new level of communication and connection – not just with those around us, but with anyone across the planet, from wherever we may be.

The advent of mass-produced plastic has also facilitated huge progress in the medical world. Plastic provides hospitals with a cost-effective way to prevent the spread of deadly diseases – medical products like syringes and IV tubes can be disposed of after use. From prosthetics to the casings of MRI machines, the number of medical applications for plastic within hospitals is countless.

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It can be seen then that the benefits of plastic are undeniable, but so are the costs. With one hand plastic offers us the opportunity to develop and further humanity, yet with the other it destroys the natural world around us. One cannot put forward the case for the benefits of plastic without acknowledging the costs, and vice versa. Thus, the real issue we must now collectively face is how to reconcile these two diametric positions.

Although considerable time could be spent cataloguing the plethora of ways that plastic is ravaging the planet, the scale of the problem can be elucidated with a few choice statistics. Plastic production is increasing exponentially; fifty percent of all plastic ever produced has been manufactured within the last fifteen years – plastic production is projected to double by 2050. Moreover, the production and incineration of plastic released more than 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2019 alone. Perhaps most distressingly of all, the Environmental science and Technology Journal has revealed that humans may be ingesting up to 52,000 particles of microplastic every year.

Regrettably, we cannot return to the halcyon days of past centuries, before plastic began to permeate our way of life; instead, we must deal with the problem, and fast.

As of 1st October, a ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds has come into force in England. Whether this is simply a token gesture and a sop to environmentalists, or a genuine tentative step on the path to seriously addressing the problem remains to be seen. Certainly, the du jour of the past few years has been the drive towards a cleaner future, one that begins with cutting down on plastic use. What we must do is ensure that it is not a fleeting trend but something that we continue to strive for, with the ultimate goal of harnessing the undisputable benefits of plastic, but in a sustainable, responsible and forward-looking manner.

Now that Pandora’s box has been opened, we face the Herculean task of closing it.

mackayan: the plastic problem