With decomposition lasting as far as 500 years, plastic continues to be all around us.
Did you know every piece of plastic ever made still exists today? Yes, for example Styrofoam never decomposes and petroleum-based plastics like PET do not decompose in the same manner tan organic materials do. Unlike wood or other materials, these plastic are unrecognizable to the organisms in charge of breaking down organic matter, therefore are not biodegradable.
Instead plastic undergoes a process of photo degradation in which the sunlight breaks down the plastic into smaller tiny pieces over time. Even so, in the landfills plastic does not have much chance to photodegrade. They can take as much as 500 years to decompose, meaning that if Leonardo Da Vinci had drunk water from a plastic bottle while painting the Mona Lisa, the bottle would not have fully decomposed yet.
Diego Gonzaga, from Greenpeace US uses this example to illustrate the magnitude of this problem. Everyday more plastic keeps being produced and thrown away almost immediately. For example, this is what happens with disposable cups or plastic cutlery.
But how did we get here? Among many versions of what drove the demand for modern plastics one says companies in the billiard ball industry needed a substitute for ivory. By then, newspapers were reporting that elephants could become extinct If their demand continued. Decades after chemists in Europe and the US discovered plastic as we know it today. By the beginning of the 20th century people could buy plastic hair combs, or buttons that were nor made of ivory.
Also two important factors pushed manufacturers to embrace plastic. First, the development of mass production assembly lines which made plastic production easier. Second, World War Two. During this time plastic was used in many ways, from bazooka barrels to aircraft components. Actually its production grew by almost 4 times. After the war companies needed to keep making a profit and shifted towards other markets like the production of dolls, containers and furniture.
Today we’re surrounded by plastic. It is difficult to leave the supermarket without an item that has no plastic container or one of its components is plastic. But besides the problem on how much plastic is being produced is the fact that everything related to it is damaging the planet. From the impact of extracting the fossil fuels used to produce it, to the health effects related to the toxins it releases to the environment when it is burned or the devastating impact it has on the marine ecosystems.
According to the Planting Peace Organization, biodegradable plastic is an option to change the impact plastics have on our planet, as well as recycling and reusing. For example, by using a reusable drink container an average person can eliminate the need for 100 disposable bottles per year.
Also, people can help by bringing their own bag to the grocery store or avoiding plastic cutlery. Reducing the amount of plastic someone uses is simpler than most people think. You can also avoid products that have microbeads and most importantly, be aware of what you’re consuming and how it is affecting not only your life and surroundings but the whole planet.
LatinAmerican Post | Maria Andrea Marquez