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Polymers in Paradise

A Personal Essay

(Image Credit: Sergei Tokmakov on Pixabay).

Environmental plastic waste; another modern menace affecting man-and-womankind, and flora and fauna everywhere. If I could reach back in time, grab the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland by the lapels and haul him into the present, I wonder whether he might regret his 1907 synthetic creation of ‘Bakelite.’ Once shown the planetary damage caused by the offspring of his brainchild, of course, and others like him. Well, the entire shooting match while we’re at it.

To be fair, Alexander Parkes preceded Baekeland’s invention in 1855 with his ‘Parkesine,’ today’s celluloid. However, polyvinyl chloride (what, no androcentric name tag for this?), or PVC, was first combined to form a polymer between 1838 and 1872.

Oh, I know the Belgium-based European trade association PlasticsEurope (sic) would gush about the monumental advances for humankind made possible by plastics of every kind; they do so on their website with perfect ease, as you’d expect. It all reads in laudable fashion on the surface; how environmentally conscious and credentialed they appear, with their careful, considered language, explaining the process of safe plastic production, management, and disposal.

As a decent chap, I cannot refute much of what PlasticsEurope extols about plastics. For example, they make a strong case for the benefits of plastics use in healthcare, stating that it’s impossible to have modern healthcare without the innumerable plastic-based medical products society uses with little or no thought, from sterile syringes and examination gloves to intravenous fluid bags. There’s also no doubt that advances in plastics are facilitating new procedures — like plastics that resist bacteria, or parts for the body fashioned to the recipient and produced in a 3D printer, like the synthetic plastic heart.

I must admit, however, I remain conflicted, a state not helped by an article I read quite recently in the online publication PlasticsleMag (sic), the Innovation and Plastics Magazine, in their July 2020 article ‘Plastics head off to summer sun: plastics at the seaside.’ This jolly, bright and informative e-zine — a bedfellow of PlasticsEurope — states that, with the current scientific disquiet about oceanic plastic waste, they (plastics) ‘have to be kept doing strictly what they’re meant to.’ Whatever that means, but I’m guessing not to litter the oceans, seas, beaches, coastlines, etc., ad infinitum?

If I seem conflicted, then so, too, does this e-zine. It eulogises plastics in one breath, then in the next warns of holidaymakers who ‘turn their favourite play area (beach) into a dump.’ Further, it states that ‘while we take our litter home with us, not everyone is as scrupulous.’ Goodness, they even provide a run-on article — ‘Leave beaches clean: don’t trash the ocean!’ — reminding us of the responsible behaviour expected of any civilised world citizen… bag it and bin it!

Here’s the thing, though. PlasticsleMag states that circa thirty-thousand tonnes of trash are collected and sorted yearly in France. Almost half is taken from their rivers and coastal waters adding to the five hundred and forty-odd million tonnes already bobbing about in the oceans (depending on whose figures you and I can trust) — which does not bode well when considering the likely aggregated total for the planet. The Mail Online reported in its May 2021 article that ‘80% of all ocean plastics come from more than 1,000 rivers with hotspots in Asia and West Africa.’ Although one might well question the reliability and accuracy of this paper’s claim, it is attention-grabbing nonetheless!

I’m left with the comical image of a resurrected King Canute now being able to command the sea ‘not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master’ because the waves would be unable to break through the sheer volume of environmental plastic flotsam and jetsam. What is not rib-tickling, however, is to see real-world images of wildlife choking to death on plastics. Or to be told that micro-plastics are insinuating themselves into our bodies in the food we eat — even reaching the foetus through the placenta. A scary thought.

When a robot sub finds ‘a plastic bag and sweet wrappers at the bottom of the Mariana Trench — the deepest abyss in the world’ — you may declare that the problems of plastic waste are far reaching. Then again, visit the Galápagos Islands — 605 miles west of northern South America as the albatross flies — and you’ll find its fauna battling with an ever-increasing press of plastic litter. About 40% from China, 38% from Peru, and guest appearances from as far afield as Japan, the Mediterranean, and England. Which leaves me with my final visualisation… of a Galápagos green turtle or Blue-Footed Booby adorned with plastic ‘jewellery’ that started life as yokes from six-packs of someone’s favourite beer. Perhaps after a university students’ campfire soirée on Aberystwyth’s south beach.

What a sobering thought.

. . .

(This article first appeared on Medium.com)

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Culture and Current Events, Non-Fiction, Opinion Piece, Personal Narrative, Satire

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