Let’s Talk The Plastic Crisis

Flat World Partners
6 min readFeb 1, 2024

About | Mission | Blog

Many of us are annoyed with the new soggy straws that seem to be everywhere. Sipping our $7 ice coffees we allow ourselves the feeling of being a virtuous martyr, struggling to sip our overpriced brew through a quickly disintegrating straw, and to ourselves we think with relish on how we are saving the turtles. This couldn’t be further from the truth, for swapping out straws alone is no match for the unbridled production and consequent plastic waste situation we are facing today, deemed a crisis by the U.N. And as we have all learned from our horror-movie-obsessed culture, we should start at the beginning. Who doesn’t love a villain origin story?

In 1869 John Wesley Hyatt, driven in pursuit of a NYC firm’s offer of $10K for anyone who could offer up a viable substitute for ivory — billiards was really taking off and natural ivory, which was obtained from the slaughter of elephants, was becoming increasingly difficult to obtain — treated cotton cellulose with camphor and discovered a malleable plastic polymer, liberating manufacturing from the constraints of nature and at a fraction of the cost. Others took if further from here: Leo Baekeland invented in 1907 the first fully synthetic polymer in the form of Bakelite, a substance found entirely outside of nature.

During World War II plastic production had increased by 300%, folks had started seeing plastic floating in the oceans in the 1960’s, and shortly after, Rachel Carson’s revolutionary book, Silent Spring, made fantastic waves and sparked outrage at waste procedures. There was a growing anxiety and unease around a material that could be created so cheaply, and in the ’70s an ’80s it was associated with conformity and superficiality.

Enter the stage “The Three R’s”: reduce, reuse, recycle, a mantra I assume we are all familiar with. And what a dream we were sold with ‘recycling,’ the environmental savior we desperately needed and what continues to let us all feel warm and cozy buying plastic water bottles and clunky detergents which promise to be reinvented into some other commodity when we are finished with it. Hallelujah! Big Oil began selling this fever dream with real vehemence as far back as the 1970s, persuading the average person that it was not the large companies that produced incomprehensible waste’s fault, it was the consumer’s fault. And since it takes about 0.5 gallons of oil to create 1 pound of virgin plastic, we can see why they didn’t want the focus on them.

While most of us are diligent about rinsing and placing our recyclables in their proper bins, much of what we attempt to recycle ends up in landfills or incinerated, releasing staggering amounts of pollution into the air through decomposition or burning. The U.S. recycling system is broken, with many areas not having the mechanisms to accomplish this feat, much of the plastic being exported to other countries (the US adores shipping its plastic waste to China, a nation that recently shuttered its doors to the process), coupled with a terrifying blasé attitude (66% of Americans don’t care enough to recycle a product if it is inconvenient for them to do so), an increasingly worrisome future is being constructed atop a towering pile of plastic garbage.

In 2021 Reuters launched an investigation into why over 90% of the world’s plastic trash is either incinerated or dumped into landfills with no cheap way to recycle and repurpose it, and found that dozens of advanced recycling projects around the world are shutting down, with many having started off as partnerships between small recycling firms and big petrochemical companies, such as ExxonMobil Corp, P&G, and Royal Dutch Shell Plc.

There is also little transparency into which areas have the ability or the means to actually repurpose plastic, coupled with the little known truth that there are 7 types of plastic, 4 of which are highly toxic, and only 3 of those 7 types (PET/PETE, HDPE, PS) are commonly recycled — and even that can be very difficult to do so. Meaning if you are able to recycle, your local recycling firm likely can’t and doesn’t handle all plastics, so only some — if you’re luckyof what you’re putting in that bin is actually recycled. Keep in mind it takes about 1,000 years for plastics to decompose into toxic microplastics, insidious particles of plastic which are now found everywhere, including in our blood, disrupting our hormones and being tied to fertility issues and cancer, among other health concerns.

We no longer know a world without plastic, and it seems unlikely we ever will. Plastic has allowed for enormous leaps in science and medicine, in technology and modern living. And while it is inarguably critical in our modern society in many capacities, it is more critical that we all do our part, a labor that pales compared to the enormous effects large corporations can have. We have reached a precipice in which we need to educate ourselves, hold the most egregious polluters accountable not just for their action but for rectifying the damages they cause, and enact protective legislation that ensures there is not just a better day tomorrow for our children but a tomorrow at all.

Lillian MacCartney, Vice President

In 2019 180 countries took a major leap in lowering the production of plastic…the U.S. did not participate.
January, 2024: Spain on the alert as plastic pellets from a cargo spill begin washing up on their shore.
Scientists have recently found that water in plastic bottles contains over 100x the particles of plastic previously thought.

Check your local recycling capabilities here and learn more about the different types of plastic here.
Here is a succinct and tidy list of facts you should be aware of regarding plastic pollution.
Tips for avoiding and lowering plastic use in our every day lives.

Check out companies that are tackling sustainable alternatives to plastic in the uplifting film Plastic Earth.

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