I'm pretty sure Alexander Parkes deserves to be better known. Not only did he have 19 children but in 1856 he invented the first plastic which he called parkesine. How did he find the time!! He was another one of those ingenious, busy Victorians who did so much to mould (pun most certainly intended) our modern world. I mean, plastic is absolutely brilliant. It really is. Just consider the first 15 minutes of my day for example. The casing around my alarm clock, the pipes that provide me with running water, my toothbrush, the microbeads used in the toothpaste, the rawl plugs keeping the mirror on the wall, the buttons on my clothes, the tiles on my kitchen floor, the insulated lining of the fridge, the milk container, the top on the coffee jar, the bag keeping my bread fresh, the switch on the toaster, the CD I play during breakfast, the hooks holding the curtains up, the frames of the windows I look out of to check the weather. And that's just the obvious stuff. It's absolutely everywhere, doing absolutely anything and everything. I hope Mr Parkes benefited hugely from his ingenuity - he deserved to.

Plastic is so useful

It's so useful that we produce 50kg each year for every person on the planet. Of this, 30% of it is used for packaging, 30% for building things, 20% for cars, with the furniture and toy industries also heavily reliant on the material. And as the developing world gets richer and richer, the trend is only going one way.


And it's no wonder we produce so much, because the stuff is so versatile. It's long lasting, cheap, malleable, colourful, light and strong. But it can also be the opposite of all these things.  And it can be used for so many things. Furthermore you don't need to chop down forests to make it, or create huge quarries to extract it. And as it's so light, it costs very little to transport it compared to glass or metal or paper which it has come to replace.


But I also hate plastic!

It is estimated that since 1856 we've produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic, of which 6.3 billion tonnes has ended up as waste. Plastic accounts for about 10% of all manmade waste. Although in our oceans, 80-90% of the waste found is plastic and so it's much more visible there. 12 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans every year, mostly from household and commercial waste that's initially blown into rivers. In a recent study of 50 dead marine mammals washed up on British shores, all of them had plastics inside them.


I hate that there are pollution effects though the whole life cycle of plastic, from the extraction of oil, to the creation of the base petrochemicals, to the manufacture of the final products, and then on to its final disposal.  The manufacture, use and then burying and burning of waste plastic are all believed to have serious health impacts. I also hate that only 10% of plastic is recycled.


I hate that plastic degrades so slowly. We haven't been around long enough to know for certain how long certain plastics take to degrade. But it is believed that it will take a plastic drinks bottle 400 years to degrade; a disposable nappy, 450 years; and a fishing line, 600 years.

Time to think

Although I often take plastic for granted, it allows me to have a pretty luxurious life at a relatively low cost in terms of pounds and pence. That's why I love plastic. But I hate it because all this comes at such an obvious environmental cost.

The future

What am I going to do about it?

What are we going to do about it?

What's our government going to do about it?

What are the most complained about UK plastic polluters, Sainsbury's and Tesco, going to do about it?

What are the biggest oil companies, Shell and BP amongst others, who are busily investing in petrochemicals to continue their growth, going to do about it?

What are some of the world's big plastic waste polluters, Coca Cola, Nestle, PepsiCo, Colgate, P&G and Mars going to do about it?


So many questions!! Some simple tips on recycling on the link below.

By Matthew Birt

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