Business Recycling News

Billiard balls, elephants and lots of waste: a short history of plastics and how you can take action this Earth Day

By Laura Chalk 22 April 2024

This year’s Earth Day theme is ‘Planet vs Plastic’, a call to raise awareness about the health risks posed by plastic pollution and the damage it inflicts on the environment. But how did we become so reliant on plastics and are they all bad, all the time? Let’s discuss.

For centuries, billiard balls were made from the ivory of elephant tusks. But in the 1800s, elephant numbers had declined so significantly that an alternative material was required.

Several alternatives emerged, including celluloid (made from cellulose, a compound found in wood and straw) and Bakelite, a material invented in 1907 that was preferred because it wasn’t as flammable.

Bakelite was made from phenol (a waste product of coal tar) and formaldehyde, making it the world’s first fossil fuel-based plastic. However, Bakelite was just the start. In the 1920s, polystyrene, vinyl, acrylics and nylon began to be commercially produced. Then in 1933 came polyethylene, which is still used today to make products like water bottles and shopping bags.

Each of these materials became popular because they were superior to traditional options in terms of durability, versatility, lightness and strength.

During World War II, plastic was necessary for parachutes, plexiglass in planes, water-proof vinyl coats and helmet liners, so the quantities of plastics being manufactured increased. After the war, the manufacturers of these products turned their attention to consumer goods, and then their packaging. Plastics were relatively cheap and easy to produce and had a wide range of uses (including critical ones like keeping food fresh for longer), so their use proliferated rapidly around the western world.

But even in the 1950s, only around two million tonnes of plastic was produced each year. By 2015, this number had exploded to 380 million tonnes.

The use of plastic extends far beyond packaging and household products of course. It is used in transportation, infrastructure and hospitals – for everything from gloves and tubes to surgical machinery. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease emerged in 1996 and was found to survive normal sterilisation processes, so many standard reusable surgical instruments were replaced by single-use versions to reduce the risk of contamination and infection in hospitals.

Some everyday plastic products are also important for our health. Contraceptive devices such as condoms and diaphragms (which are both on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines) and feminine hygiene products like tampons and sanitary pads are some examples. And we have all benefited from the use of facemasks in slowing the spread of Covid-19.

If plastic disappeared from supermarkets, our lives as consumers would be far less convenient. The shelf life of some fresh produce items are extended using plastic packaging either in-store or during transportation, and removing this would likely result in more food waste.

So, plastic has brought convenience, cost-effectiveness and even life-saving applications like those used in the medical industry - but also significant environmental issues, namely waste. According to the OECD, only nine per cent of all plastics produced are recycled globally, while 22 per cent is mismanaged and the remainder is sent to landfill.

It is the overuse, overconsumption, and waste of plastics that requires urgent attention, and that means change at all stages of the supply chain from design through to use and disposal, as well as in the government regulation.

The good news is this is happening increasingly. Humans were good at inventing plastic and we are good at inventing ways out of its use and decreasing its waste. The pace of these developments must increase and the positive effect widespread for it to have the impact it needs to.

While individuals aren’t solely responsible for the plastics crisis, we can be a part of the solution and this is an exciting and empowering opportunity rather than a burden to bear. In Australia, we have myriad alternatives available and experts in the field leading the surge in innovative design and advanced solutions.

Arguably the biggest shift needed is revaluating our throwaway culture and consumption habits. Cost of living stressors add to this challenge, but the many solutions can help us not only reduce single-use products, including plastics, but also save us money. The cost to consumers may come in the form of time and while not all of us have an abundance of that outside of work and life duties, those of us who do can look to the ever-growing, creative, community-focused initiatives in our towns and cities to help us reduce, repair, repurpose and recycle effectively.

Our parents and grandparents invested in the rise of plastic, including that of single-use, through their embrace of it as it emerged and took over the consumer world. This generation can invest in retreating from plastic waste and replacing it with renewable, safe alternatives and responsible end-of-life methods.

We can put pressure on our favourite brands to reduce reliance on plastic, use recycled plastic and adopt the Australasian Recycling Label so we know how to recycle packaging correctly. We can tell our elected members that this is something we are concerned about and want to see them take action on. And we can educate and empower our friends, our family and ourselves to understand how to best choose products and disposal options that contribute to removing unnecessary and excessive plastics from our earth.

The first Earth Day in 1970 remains the largest single-day protest in history, with 20 million people taking to the streets. But taking action through positive environmental choices is another form of protest against overconsumption, pollution and the climate crisis.

For help getting started, visit the Earth website for petitions to sign, educational material to check out and share with others, toolkits and ways to donate.

You can also visit Recycling Near You for practical tips to reduce unnecessary plastic consumption in your life, alternatives to disposal like reuse and repair, and how to recycle an item in your local area.

Laura Chalk
With a background in Teaching English as a Second Language and Communications, Laura joined Planet Ark in 2016. Laura has a passion for the environment and behaviour change, and is excited about using social media to help people take positive environmental actions everyday.