By Frank J. Dinan
In 1955 I was a young undergraduate student studying chemistry when I read an exciting Scientific American article that was to have a big effect on my life. The article dealt with what were then relatively new materials of growing use, versatility and importance: plastics.
I still recall the excitement it generated in me. The article described the many marvelous characteristics of the materials that the public refers to as plastics, and chemists call polymers.
They were described as cheap, strong, versatile, lightweight, stable and long-lasting. Features that I thought would make plastics endlessly useful, and that has proved to be the case with a vengeance. Then, I couldn’t envision plastics as a potential threat to our planet.
Yet today, I sit writing on my plastic-encased laptop, tapping on plastic keys while sitting on a couch made of plastic fibers, in a room with a plastic rug. The clothes that I am wearing are a blend of plastic and natural fibers, and a plastic water bottle sits next to me.
I clearly live in a world where plastics have taken over much of what was once the role of metals, wood and other “natural” materials. No more all-metal cars, glass milk bottles, wooden boats, etc.
When I next went grocery shopping I made it a point to look for the presence of plastics in the store. Nearly every food item was enclosed in plastic: fruits, vegetables, cheese, bread, meats, milk and on and on. When I checked out the clerk asked if I wanted “paper or plastic.” It sounded like the punchline to a very bad joke.
All of this led me to wonder, where do all of those plastics go? I quickly found that, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 9 percent of U.S. plastics were recycled in 2014, and even less today. I knew that most of the plastics that we use every day are so long-lasting that they will be around for decades after their use. I learned that many of our plastics end up in the oceans where they form “plastic garbage patches,” huge ocean areas, bigger than many of our larger states, and growing rapidly.
Astoundingly, I learned that we are putting plastics into our oceans so rapidly that, if we don’t change our ways, within decades the weight of plastics in the oceans will be greater than the weight of all of the sea life living there.
Obviously, things have changed a lot since I was a hopeful kid in the 1950s, awed by the promise of plastics, but unaware of the problems they could cause for our planet.
Today, I hope that we, led by modern science and good, responsible people everywhere, will care enough about the world we live in to vigorously seek ways by which we can continue to use the plastics that we are so dependent on, while avoiding the many environmental problems they have caused. Then our use of plastics can become both socially useful and environmentally responsible.
Frank J. Dinan is an emeritus professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Canisius College.