The ocean plastic crisis may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon with how much attention it's received over the last decade. However, this situation extends decades beyond modern-day — and the inception of plastic itself stretches even further. Understanding the history of ocean plastic pollution gives us a glimpse into how this material became so pervasive and how we might learn from past behaviors.
What have people done in the past to limit the effects of plastics in the ocean? How can we build upon those efforts as we undertake plastic consumption today? This article gives a detailed look into the plastic crisis, including the history of plastic itself.
The history of plastic
The first human-made plastic, or polymer, was created in 1862 by Alexander Parkes. He dubbed his invention Parkesine. It consisted of cellulose, which allowed it to be heated and molded into various shapes.
A polymer is essentially any molecule that consists of numerous units. Naturally occurring polymers consist of materials like wool, cellulose, and hemp. Synthetic polymers, however, have long atom chains — much longer than the ones that occur in nature. The length of these chains is what makes them flexible and moldable, which earned plastic the name it carries today.
Parkes displayed his invention at the Great International Convention in London. His creation stirred interest, and subsequent inventors like John Wesley Hyatt built upon his idea, bringing it to commercial recognition. In 1907, Bakelite — the first fully synthetic plastic — came on the scene. This material was more like plastic as we know it today, originating from a fossil fuel source. Leo Baekeland created Bakelite using formaldehyde and phenol, a coal byproduct.
Bakelite saw popularity as a mass-produced material due to its appearance and affordable cost. Its dark-brown hue made it favorable within the Art Deco movement, and artists didn't have to pay sky-high prices to obtain it.
Why it was created
Early developers of plastic — Parkes, Baekeland, and Hyatt — created the material because they wanted a cheap and effective alternative to various natural resources. There are only so many natural resources to go around, which is why conservation and preservation are so crucial.
Many people in the late 1800s were afraid they would use up all of the available natural resources at the rate they were developing new inventions. Elephant ivory, for example, was popular for piano keys and billiard balls. Ironically, the material that has caused so much environmental concern now originally started as a tool to preserve the natural world from depletion and overexploitation.
Industrial manufacturers began to work with plastic to create war machinery for World War II. Polyethylene plastic became an essential element in producing electrical devices, as it did an effective job of insulating the wires. From there, the material saw a steady ascent in the industrial world, with companies using it to create anything from garbage pails to hula hoops.
Even after World War II ended, plastic manufacturers kept production going by creating new forms of it — including nylon and acrylic. Plastic appealed to people because of its ease of use and easy cleaning. It didn't absorb stains like other materials did, and cleaning it required a simple wipe-down. As it became a staple in businesses and homes, its applications transformed.
How plastic has transformed
From being a hopeful experiment to transforming into a mass-produced material, plastic experienced many changes in its early years. Inventors developed new types that people still consume today, including:
- Plastic wrap: The term "plastic wrap" refers to the industrial material used for packaging goods and the food-grade version used to seal foods. In the 1930s, the military originally used the material as a protective spray for fighter jets — they also lined their boots with it. It became known as Saran wrap in later decades. The material changed from polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) to polyethylene after people expressed concern about exposing their food to chloride.
- Styrofoam: Styrofoam sprang up in the 1940s as a solution for insulating buildings and constructing watercraft. Though it proved useful, it also brought an array of problems — such as ozone layer depletion and carcinogens.
- High-density polyethylene (HDPE): HDPE is one of the more easily recyclable plastics, and you'll find it in products like plastic bottles, cutting boards, and milk jugs. Its ability to resist bacterial contamination and withstand high temperatures have made it favorable among food manufacturers.
- Low-density polyethylene (LDPE): LDPE is harder to recycle than HDPE, which makes its environmental impact harsher. Manufacturers commonly use it for applications like food packaging, wire insulation, and prosthetics.
Plastic's favor waned slightly after World War II due to the general public learning about its effects on the environment. Ocean pollution became increasingly apparent in the late 1960s, with researchers conducting some of the first intensive studies on plastic litter. Scientists noted occurrences of Laysan Albatrosses ingesting plastic items and northern fur seals becoming entangled in netting. Building upon existing ocean pollution history, the presence of microplastics came into clear focus during the 1970s.
However, that information didn't do much to stifle the material's growth. Instead, organizations began developing recycling strategies and informing individuals on how to consume plastic wisely. The Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc., developed the plastic resin identification code in 1988, which detailed the seven types of plastics. By identifying each kind under a uniform label, they sought to make plastic recycling easier for individuals and recycling firms.
Although scientists and industry officials made early efforts to investigate and halt mounting plastic pollution, it has continued on, bringing us to today's ocean plastic crisis.
Plastic pollution: Where we are today
Now, plastic is even more of a daily staple than it was after the events of World War II. Many people groom their hair with plastic combs, brush their teeth with plastic toothbrushes, and drink from plastic cups just after waking up in the morning. This material has made life convenient for many through its durable yet affordable quality. However, this same sturdiness makes it impossible to biodegrade — instead, it remains in the environment for decades.
The history of plastic pollution in the ocean is extensive because of plastic's long life. The material never truly goes away — it merely breaks apart into microplastics that marine animals ingest and absorb. Three species of fish in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean have been found to have polyethylene and polyester microplastics in their bodies. Because people often catch and eat these species, microplastics may also begin having harmful effects on humans.
There is no single cause of this phenomenon. Examining plastic pollution history facts reveals that numerous factors have contributed to the prevalence of this material. Although the issue seems vast, it can be solved through joint efforts. We must first identify the most significant causes and effects before taking action. Being informed helps you understand the problem on a deeper level and pinpoint ways you can assist in supporting the planet's health.
Here are some contributing factors that have influenced the widespread nature of plastic pollution:
City expansion calls for more materials, whether people use them for everyday applications or to build new structures. As populations grow, so does the amount of plastic that people consume and dispose of. One study found that 90% of ocean plastic originates from only 10 river systems, which are all located near highly populated areas. These high population rates combine with less-than-ideal waste management systems to create a severe plastic problem.
A high population by itself isn't the only contributor to plastic consumption, though it does play a vital part. Cities and countries with millions of people can succeed with plastic recycling if they adopt more effective, organized techniques for disposing of the material. Change must also occur on an industrial level, however. Many industries know how lucrative and long-lasting plastic is and continue manufacturing it because there are few better alternatives for mass production.
Lack of recycling infrastructure
A major reason why not enough plastic makes it to recycling facilities is because these plants don't have the means to process it. In 2017, the U.S. produced 35.4 million tons of plastic (32.1 million metric tons (MT)) but only recycled about 8.4% of it. Out of those plastics, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and HDPE had the highest recycling rates — because they're the only two that are relatively easy to reuse.
Most other types prove difficult to reuse in various ways, whether because of poor material structure — like plastic film and plastic bags — or toxicity. Straws are too lightweight and get stuck in the machines, while bags become entangled in the mechanical parts. Additionally, the different types of plastic require precise sorting to ensure they're recycled properly, which many facilities don't have enough resources for.
Some companies are implementing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning for better sorting practices. This ensures that each material makes it to its rightful place within the recycling process instead of traveling to landfills. Others are looking to chemical processing as a solution, which converts plastics into their original raw forms for reuse.
Not enough knowledge of plastic
It's difficult for people to reduce their plastic consumption and dispose of their single-use products if they don't know the best recycling techniques. Not everyone is intimately familiar with the plastic resin codes or what they mean, nor do the codes themselves give a very detailed look at the plastics. You can find those numbers on any plastic product you own, but unless you already know the details of each material, you won't know which ones are recyclable.
Decreasing global plastic consumption depends on communicating plastic pollution facts. It's essential for researchers, companies, and governments to be transparent about plastic consumption and how it has impacted planet Earth. Education initiatives for individuals of every age can help people ensure their single-use plastics make it to the recycling plant instead of a local waterway or landfill.
Plastic pollution in the future
Numerous environmental experts have given their estimations on how the history of plastic pollution will affect our future. The International Energy Agency reports that petrochemicals will be responsible for more than a third of global oil growth by 2030. Plastic demand has significantly surpassed other bulk materials, with advanced economies using 20 times more plastic than developing markets around the world.
Researchers expect the ocean to hold 1 ton of plastic (1 MT) for every 3 tons of fish (2.7 MT) by 2025. By 2050, they predict there will be more plastic than fish by weight. This possibility is compounded by the fact that 95% of plastic packaging loses its value after the first use. Without a way to recycle it, it's more likely to enter the environment. If we don't act now to curb plastic consumption, these futures could soon become reality, which will only do more to upset the Earth's ecosystems.
However, the ocean plastic crisis isn't an unbeatable obstacle. We're all in this together, and every person's contribution — no matter how small — counts in winning against ecological harm. With combined efforts and motivation, we can beat the ocean plastic crisis by:
- Switching to reusable products: Trading single-use products for reusable ones is a major step in reducing your plastic consumption, whether you implement it in one area of your life or several. By limiting your purchase of single-use plastics, you stop them from ever entering the inflow of pollution in the ocean.
- Participating in cleanups:Whenever you clean up a local beach or lake, you're doing your part to remove single-use plastics from the environment and make our world more habitable. Volunteering with 4ocean or other organizations allows you to make a difference for Mother Earth.
- Educating others on plastic consumption: More people will join the movement to reduce plastic consumption — and recycle existing plastic — when they have the knowledge to do so. Some individuals may be unaware of the gravity of the ocean plastic crisis. By informing them, you can get others to consider small new ways of decreasing the material's presence in their lives.
- Practicing more sustainable recycling methods: Read up on practical recycling techniquesand familiarize yourself with what types of items your curbside program accepts. Research indicates that if the percentage of plastics in municipal solid waste is limited to 10% in 2020 and 5% by 2040, plastic pollution could be decreased to a third of its current amount.
Together we can end ocean plastic pollution
When it comes to eliminating plastic pollution, there's significant value in thinking big and acting quickly. Though planet Earth still thrives in many ways, it can't sustain the continuous flow of single-use plastics forever. We must do what we can now to protect the ocean and the environment as a whole from resource depletion and harmful debris. Lend your bright ideas to the movement and put them into action by spreading the word within your area.
Even if you can't join the initiative in traditional ways, there are numerous other ways you can help. When you purchase any item from 4ocean, you fund the removal of one pound of trash from the ocean and coastlines. Additionally, signing up for our Clean Ocean Club lets you receive the Bracelet of the Month before it enters the shop. Each bracelet symbolizes a marine animal or ecosystem impacted by the ocean plastic crisis.