Whose Quality of Life? A Plastics Problem
by Elena Aurora & Layel Camargo
September 18, 2018
Each piece of plastic is one of many plastics created in the world, 9.1 billion tons to be exact. Most plastics are a premeditated creation for capital gains and high profits but at the expense of what? or should I say who?
© Steve Morgan / Greenpeace
Plastics. If you are reading this blog, then you most likely found it because you are on a journey to renouncing plastics. Are you interested in knowing how plastic is created? Well, here is the quick and dirty: oil is extracted, water is used along the way, oil is mixed with minerals and/or other plant materials, then almost like if it were magic, BOOM you have plastic polymers. Although the making of plastic is born from science and some natural materials, plastic would never exist if it wasn’t for humans. However most importantly, it would NOT exist in harmful massive quantities if it wasn’t for corporations manufacturing and distributing plastic products.
This past year, plastic has become common household conversation due to viral videos, plastic bag bans and plastic straw bans. Since plastic is in the spotlight, we believe society is on a path of expanding our understanding of plastic, and maybe also realizing the true “lifespan” of a plastic product. We know that plastic did not pop out of thin air, we also know that mining for its raw materials is damaging natural ecosystems. Plastic was engineered, we could go into the history of plastic, however The Science History Institute does a great job at it. Take a look!
So let’s look at the most harmful raw material extracted in making plastic: crude oil. At the core of its spirit, crude oil is the fossilized remains of trillions of ancient floor creatures; single-celled ancestors whose bodies tenderly covered the ocean floor for thousands of years. Single-celled organisms, A LOT of them! It is their life, and their death, that make oil and plastic possible. As the earth’s crust moved, and the weight of water pressed down on the ocean floor for thousands of years, the layers of organisms are transformed into crude oil. This oil is used for many modern human conveniences: powering our cities, powering our cars, and making things out of plastic.
When crude oil is extracted, it doesn’t just happen on its own. Oil drilling requires people operating heavy and dangerous machines. These jobs are not conducted by the CEO’s of the company, they are operated most often, by people living in poverty who do not have the option of safer jobs. A study by The National Center for Biotechnology Information states, “The industry occupational fatality rate is 2.5 times higher than the construction industry and 7 times higher than general industry”. As you can imagine, a lot of labor is needed to unearth crude oil yearly. Making plastic is a huge driver for the oil industry. This year alone, plastic film (the plastic wrap used for packaging) produced 15 millions lbs of plastic. That does not include all the production that also goes into manufacturing plastic cups, cutlery, toys, and other plastic used daily. All along the lines of production humans are interacting with plastic, either by choice, or more often, without the choice to live, work, and breathe plastic.
Plastics have been used for only a little over 100 years. The material is extremely versatile, malleable, and cheap! And it lasts for a long time. Some estimates say it takes up to 1000 years for some plastics to dissolve in a landfill. Actually, because of its durability, plastic was originally invented to be kept and reused. Many scientists and chemists came across versions of plastics (different polymer combinations) when searching for a stronger material. In World War II, plastic production skyrocketed, bringing jobs to the people. After the war, manufacturers needed a reason to continue producing plastic. So marketing masters got to work! And the plastic industry created a need for plastics post WWII, making manufacturing plastic an American staple.
The luxurious culture of disposability is encapsulated by a Time Magazine article in 1955 that highlights individuals’ freedom from the burden of caring for things. Things like dishes and popcorn buckets. Plastic and paper alike. That we did not need to maintain stuff anymore, we could throw it away. They targeted housewives in TV advertisements to buy plastic, making their lives easier. Production increased, and people working and living all along the lines of plastic manufacturing increased the demand with more products. Increasing plastic production impacts the labor class as well as the environment. Predominantly black communities in places like ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana have seen the effects of growing petrochemical facilities in their backyards. Although not all crude oil extraction is used for plastic production, the demand for plastic does drive the market for oil. If oil extraction and plastic production continue as expected “the consumption of oil by the entire plastics sector will account for 20% of the total consumption by 2050.” So the question becomes, do corporations really need to be producing so much plastic?
In under 200 years, the culture of disposability has poisoned our entire planet. Deep ocean explorers, hoping to discover untouched territory by humans are often greeted with our plastic trash. There are FIVE garbage gyres circulating our oceans, our cities are overflowing with garbage, and every day, there are more and more animals killed by consuming plastic. Not to mention the various ways people were impacted along production. Our current plastic production is destroying our planet while reducing the quality and longevity of life for humans and animals along the way.
Our collective plastic pollution crisis is a big challenge, but one that we CAN rise to solve. Cutting down on plastic production from our lives will shift our culture of disposability and open up an exciting journey. We’ve been swayed into believing once we throw something away, it is no longer our responsibility. Think of the people involved in extracting oil and manufacturing products; how now they have a lower quality of life so we can have the convenience of plastic all around us. A convenience we did not request. We ask of you to remember that we are all connected, and that our understanding of disposability can shift the quality of life for those living on this world, including us. This can start with reimagining the ‘lifespan’ of plastic.
So what about recycling? As dreamy as recycling sounds, it is not a solution on its own. By all means, yes, please, recycle… AND recognize that recycling is a band-aid to a greater root problem: mass production. 91% of plastics don’t ever get to a recycling facility, the 9% that does get to a facility is shipped to another country and incinerated. It is important for society as a whole to cut down on disposable products; however it’s the corporations who are most responsible for our plastic problems and need to stop producing it to begin with! What would our world look like if corporations were more accountable to the massive amounts of plastic and trash that their companies produce? Those profit margins, the ones that come at the cost of people’s lives and wellness, could be used to clean up the mess of irresponsible production!