Decades ago, we celebrated plastic as an achievement. Today, it has become the biggest problem in our oceans.
For decades we saw plastic as a marvel of our own ingenuity - a miracle of manufacturing by which lowly oil could be turned into a glorious array of life-improving devices. We celebrated not only its function - in our kitchens, cars and wardrobes - but also its very disposability. A startling photograph in a 1955 edition of Life magazine shows a family tossing household products into the air. The jubilant headline: “Throwaway Living”.
Headlines this decade read rather differently. Now that it is impossible to imagine modern life without plastic, we are increasingly aware of its environmental impact. Meanwhile, we produce - and throw away - more of it than ever. Each year, the world makes about 340m tonnes of plastic, enough to fill all the skyscrapers in Manhattan.
The focus for our fears has become the oceans, where a global addiction is creating a catastrophe. As many as 12 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans each year, a number that scientists predict will double by 2025. Larger pieces, including plastic bags that float like toxic jellyfish, gather with currents in giant patches. One patch in the Pacific is three times the size of France.
Tiny fragments known as microplastics enter the guts of marine animals. They pass into their vital organs and flesh, causing death and mutation. Last December, 100 kilos of plastic and other debris were cut from the stomach of a single sperm whale that had washed up on a Scottish beach.
Scientists now estimate as many as half of humans are thought to have microplastics in their own digestive systems, with uncertain long-term effects to our health.
Understanding this unwanted flow provides the answers to stemming it. But it won’t be easy. Plastics reach our waterways in direct and invisible ways. They can spill out of the waste cycle that connects our own bins to landfill - and the sorting centres and trucks between them. Rain can wash litter into streams, while illegal dumping adds to the toxic cascade.
But much of the plastic in the ocean starts its journey in our own drains. Microplastics in our pharmaceutical products and toiletries pass through treatment plants and - ultimately - into the sea. Every time we put our synthetic clothing into the washing machine, millions of particles are washed away. Meanwhile the cars of our tyres shed plastic with every mile we drive.
So what do we do? We recognise the immutable ingenuity of plastic, while using and wasting a lot less of it. The popular plastics backlash understandably focuses on single-use products such as straws, water bottles and plastic-lined coffee cups. They may be a drop in the ocean when compared to the broader tide of waste, but by engaging us in our relationship with plastic, campaigns focus minds at the top as well as bottom of global supply chains.
Corporations and manufacturers are being forced by a groundswell of concern and legislation to innovate, while recycling rates are inching higher, if not everywhere - and not quickly enough. The fashion industry is searching its sole for solutions to the throwaway culture that is sewn into its business model. Sustainable solutions are multiplying, be they in recycling plants, material laboratories or conversations around kitchen tables. The goal: to consign the age of “throwaway living” to the history books.
The topic of plastics is not the only environmental problem the world is currently struggling with. If we do not manage to massively reduce our CO2 emissions in the coming years, experts expect serious consequences for mankind. Our society is therefore facing major challenges. LGT is convinced that everyone must fulfill their social and corporate responsibility and make a contribution to a livable future. LGT is doing this in various areas – you can see here which ones.