Atienza: The story of plastic


ANG plastik mo! Woe betide anyone branded plastic. You are a fake. A phony. Pretentious. Bogus. Not for real.

Though how a material that does not decompose for thousands of years can be equated with the phrase “not for real” makes one wonder. Plastic is as real as the cell phone you reach out for first thing this morning, the shampoo bottle you use and the mineral water container you got your drink from. It is as ubiquitous as the coffee and laundry sachets you come across, the bags and bins that contain your garbage, the ballpoint pens children bring to school and the pouches handed to thousands of shoppers at Carbon market this morning.

Plastic, as we know it today, was invented in 1907 by a Belgian-born American chemist by the name Leo Hendrik Baekeland. Known as “bakelite,” this polymer was an alchemy of phenol and formaldehyde which ushered in the 20th modern industrial age.

Plastic transformed mankind’s daily life. At a time when liquid containers were either too heavy or too breakable to carry and existing packaging material could decompose in a matter of seconds (think spilling vinegar into your paper bag), the arrival of plastic was a certified sensation. By the 1940s it was marketed as the sleekest, most advantageous, sought out and desirable material.

Today, plastic is indispensible. Plastic in some form or another is present from your lowly toothbrush to most gadgets essential for the digital age. Computers. Cars. Cell phones. Tablets. Name it. Bakelite is most probably in it. From your bike to the airplanes you ride to discover the world... to the spacecrafts and space stations that man use to discover other worlds...yes, plastic is in it.

If you love life as you know it, then you must love and need plastic. I know I do. Credit cards and plastic surgery included.

Unfortunately, plastic and as many types there are of it today is also in the hundreds of millions of tons of garbage clogging our world’s rivers and oceans. It does not mineralize or decompose. Instead it degrades into smaller and smaller (even microscopic) pieces that fishes, and other marine wildlife ingest causing them to choke, making them too toxic to be edible, and killing whole marine ecosystems.

On a daily, hour to hour, minute to minute, second to second basis, plastic leaches out toxic chemicals linked to cancer, heart disease, birth defects, immune and endocrine system dysfunctions, causing deadly ailments and noxious disruptions to Mother Earth’s well crafted ecosystem.

The first notions of plastic pollution began in the Sixties when man noticed copious amounts of plastic debris floating on the oceans and plastic was found in the stomach of a dead seagull. Various symposiums were convened. One of the most dismaying was when a marketing executive representing multinational companies declared that plastic waste was the concern of the consumer using it! If any statement could be quoted as representative of corporate apathy and greed, then this had to be it!

On the other hand, that was the Sixties while today, we are ending the second decade of the 21st century. Flower power has since morphed into people and consumer power. While corporate greed in varying forms has scaled stratospheric heights, people power has brought about corporate awareness and corporate social responsibility, albeit nominal in so many cases. Then again, that is a whole other topic to deliberate on, and not digress to.

The point is plastic should not be demonized as the villain of the piece, which it is not. The story of plastic is about as complex and multifaceted as it is indispensible today.

But the same narrative should lead us as private citizens and end consumers to treat the story of plastic with the same stratospheric degree of personal responsibility that we demand of corporations regarding their social environmental responsibility. However greedy and apathetic THEY are. However greedy and apathetic WE are.

Remember how we used to be reminded to mind our P’s and Q’s? Let us, as a matter of life or death, mind our R’s instead... with the use of plastic.

Reduce. Reuse. Refuse. (straws, single use bags etc.) Recycle. Remove. Rally.


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