How our great plastic love affair turned toxic

Plastic was invented a century and a half ago as a way to protect the environment. Today, the world is suffocating in it as researchers and startups search for solutions

Hilmar Schmundt
November 21, 2018
How our great plastic love affair turned toxic
The plastic age is only now gaining momentum – in the form of single-use plastics that are choking the life out of the seas Photo: Shutterstock

Almost 50 years ago, astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon – and what remains of this triumph for mankind? The space suit of the time, on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, is beginning to disintegrate. Yellow spots cover it and it smells bad.

The problem: It’s made of plastic.

“This space suit consists of 22 different types of plastic, each of which disintegrates at different speeds,” said Yvonne Shashoua, a chemist and world-renowned authority on plastic preservation at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen.

Shashoua’s laboratory looks like a museum of past progress. Here you can read the history of plastic – and perhaps its future.

“This was a cooling hose,” said Shashoua, pointing to a brittle reddish-brown part. Cold water was pumped through it over the skin of the Apollo astronauts so that they would not die of heat stroke. The hose was flexible and transparent.

“Plastics are forever” – that’s what industry representatives used to say, and many environmental activists say it today. “But plastic is anything but eternally durable,” said Shashoua. “PVC, for example, is very unstable, as we can see from the hose.”

In the museum, Shashoua cares for objects related to Denmark’s more recent history: brightly coloured designer furniture, flower-powered dresses and Star Wars figures.

Plastic is made of polymers. These are long-chain molecules that are formed when carbon compounds are brought together to form a long round chain. Such chains are as natural as life itself – human DNA is also a polymer.

Artificial polymers, a kind of cultural heritage, mutate, age and die. Pictures painted with acrylic disintegrate by sweating out plasticisers. “For a long time, museums didn’t want to admit the problem,” said Shashoua.

Today, her knowledge is in demand by environmental scientists. Unlike the museum people who knock on Shashoua’s door, though, they don’t want to preserve the plastic – they want to destroy it. The question is whether a rotting astronaut suit can help create plastics that are broken down into harmless components by UV light, water or bacteria. The search is on for breakable plastic.

Many museum visitors think that the sixties were the great plastic era… But the plastic age is actually only starting to gather momentum today

The planet is in danger of drowning in a sea of polymer. In the EU alone, more than 27 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced every year. More than 1.5 million tonnes of this waste is washed into the sea. That’s around 20,000 full garbage trucks. Worldwide, it is probably 30 times as much. More than half comes from Asia.

Five huge garbage islands have become sadly famous. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the best-known of them, a colourful maelstrom of bags, bottles and other refuse almost a third the size of all of Southeast Asia, at 1.6 million square kilometres. On 15 September, the first World Cleanup Day ushered in a “green wave” to tackle waste in 150 countries.

Plastic is everywhere, even in our bodies. The smallest particles have been found in honey and salt. “Man is doing an uncontrollable experiment on a global scale,” warned Roland Geyer, an ecologist from the University of California in Santa Barbara.

The world was seriously pondering a threat of ecological catastrophe in the late 1800s. The lust for ivory was so enormous, the New York Times wrote in 1867, that elephants could go extinct unless a substitute was found.

At that time, ivory was used for common objects like piano keyboards and billiard balls. A businessman had promised the inventor of an ivory replacement a prize of $10,000. A young printer named John Wesley Hyatt heard about it, mixed all kinds of materials together and invented celluloid.

The world seemed to be saved by a technical miracle, a paste of guncotton and camphor. Thus the plastic age began in 1869 as a contribution to nature conservation. The goal, as a celluloid advertisement said at the time, was “to no longer plunder the earth in search of raw materials”.

“Isn’t it beautiful,” enthused Shashoua as she held a knife, its celluloid handle shimmering like mother-of-pearl. Beautiful, but unfortunately dangerous. During pool games, the collision of the balls was so loud, complained a landlord at the time, that frightened guests pulled their revolvers. Manufacturers ignored these warning shots – the temptation of pseudo-luxury for the masses was too great. Hollywood exposed its dreams on the highly flammable primeval plastic of film stock, and factories and cinemas burned down one after another.

Boyan Slat, 24, at a press conference in San Francisco on 8 September before the launch of his Ocean Cleanup to take on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Photo: Pierre Augier for Ocean Cleanup

Then it happened in quick succession: Bakelite and Plexiglas, nylon and neoprene. During World War II, the US polymer industry grew 300%.

“Many museum visitors think that the sixties were the great plastic era,” said Shashoua. “But the plastic age is actually only starting to gather momentum today.” Since 1960, annual plastic production has increased thirty-fold. While classics such as the cantilever chair by Danish designer Verner Panton were created back then, packaging waste now dominates. Germany is the European champion, with 220 kilos per inhabitant per year – a toxic love of plastics and elastomers like rubber.

What to do? In September, Ocean Cleanup set sail on a five-year mission from San Francisco towing a 600-metre-long barrier that picks up plastic waste in the Pacific. The inventor, Dutchman Boyan Slat, 24, hopes the project will collect half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Marine researchers remain sceptical: Most of the plastic particles from the patch have probably long since crumbled and sunk into deeper layers of water.

The garbage fishery is only a consolation, fears ecologist Geyer. Plastic waste must be intercepted on land – if necessary through taxes (“plastaxes”), export bans, recycling quotas. But such solutions are less popular than the public relations blitz of a world-rescue show.

The plastic flood continues to swell. Although Europe diligently separates waste, in the end, it burns most of it.

Shashoua recently expanded her field of research to include Denmark’s beaches. There, along with environmental technicians from Roskilde University, she tests how long it takes synthetic rubbish to crumble into molecules in the sea from exposure to sun, salt and oxygen.

“In a way, we are just as blindly poking around as the hobbyist Hyatt was when he invented the celluloid,” said Shashoua. “But today we’re looking at the end of the life cycle.” 

© 2018 Spiegel Online Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

Read more articles