The ugly face of plastic production
According to the author, demand for plastic has been as manufactured as plastics themselves.
Rebecca Altman writes an opinion piece for The Atlantic detailing just how bad plastics truly are.
According to Altman, more plastics have been produced in the previous two decades than in the second half of the twentieth century. Additionally, there is no end-of-pipe solution that can handle the volume, toxicity, or environmental legacy of mass plastics. Union Carbide and other 20th-century petrochemical companies created Vinylite before Bakelite.
The corporation spent years attempting to "synthesize" new consumers and discover new applications for Vinylite. Each product necessitated a succession of multistep reactions, with each step producing offshoots.
The author argues that product lines will branch further, eventually resulting in a virtually fractal cascade of interconnected items.
World War II accelerated the development of Teflon, polystyrene, and butadiene. It did, however, come with risks: it, like vinyl chloride monomer, has the potential to cause cancer. Following that, the federally subsidized petroleum boom obliterated any chance of a carbohydrate-dominated chemical and plastics sector.
The government had sold its wartime rubber industries to private interests by the 1950s. Multiple companies could now produce styrene and butadiene in proportions greater than what the rubber industry could use during peacetime.
To stimulate demand, the industry as a whole spent a lot of money on advertising. It began with women, training them how to pronounce what the Society of the Plastics Industry referred to as their "jaw-breaker" names. Scott Paper Company ran a series of adverts in Life magazine showcasing "glass" throwaway cups, suitable for entertaining.
In the book American Plastic, Jeffrey Meikle writes that the domestication of plastics after the war "occurred unevenly, by fits and starts."
Meikle explains how “consumers...could choose only from among goods presented in the marketplace.” And by near the end of the 20th century, what was offered was plastic.
More than 40% of plastics are used in containers, cups, packaging, and other single-use items. Despite efforts to persuade people to shun disposables, most individuals have little control over the amount of plastic packaging in their life. In certain regions, a significant amount of disposable plastics (such as sachets) has become largely inescapable.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine urged American manufacturers to minimize the number of plastics entering the marketplace. In March, two Democratic members of Congress submitted legislation to combat plastic pollution.
At least two-thirds of United Nations member states support discussions toward a formal treaty to address the global ramifications of plastics. Climate change is being driven by the industry's carbon-intensive output. Because of fracking, the United States has become the world's greatest producer of oil and gas, resulting in "a glut." This surplus of feedstock prompted a new round of investments in plastic facilities.
Once again, there are more polymers that require additional applications and markets. Polystyrene has been relegated to a minor participant in the packaging and disposables sector as a result of these polymers.
Plastics appear to be a chance to continue developing as energy and transportation transition away from fossil fuels. Some modern "mega-plants", like China's Zhoushan Green Petrochemical Base, directly transform crude oil into chemicals and polymers.
If US plastics manufacturing continues to rise at the rate projected by the industry, it would surpass the climate impacts of coal-fired power plants by 2030. Manufacturing or plastics have not been the focus of climate policy. However, plastics and climate change are not distinct concerns.
They are fundamentally related and mutually exacerbating issues. "Plastic is carbon," says CIEL President Carroll Muffett, referring to fossil fuels in another form. Or, as geographer Deirdre McKay puts it, plastic is climate change in its concrete form.
Altman concludes by drawing light to the pressing environmental disasters that surround us, arguing that the world "doesn't have a moment to waste."