There are many causes of environmental pollution. Most infamously, there are the sealed drums of toxic waste material produced as a byproduct of nuclear reactions. There are the smog and toxins that float through the air, caused by burning industrial smokestacks and the overuse of petroleum-burning vehicles and other machines. There’s slash-and-burn deforestation with the additional airborne toxins it creates and the massive environmental changes caused by the death of innumerable species that called the forests their home. Yet among all these causes of environmental pollution, one development looms larger than any other. That development is the economic miracle of the twentieth century: the revolution in plastics.
Strangely enough, plastics were developed as a solution to some of the other major causes of environmental pollution in the nineteenth century. Animal and plant-based materials like ivory, rainforest wood, tortoiseshell, and rubber were recognized as scarce and worthy of protection even in the nineteenth century, an epoch known above all else as the time in which people believed in the “myth of perpetual progress”: the belief that mankind’s destiny was to dominate the creatures of the earth and exploit them to build an ever-greater, cleaner, and safer future. The fact that coal-burning smokestacks and river-ruining industrial development was the means by which this shining utopia was to be reached never seemed to register with people, or if it did, it was viewed as at best a transitional phase, something that would in time cease altogether to apply. Yes, today our lungs are being poisoned with coal, and we are planting the seeds of many causes of environmental pollution. But tomorrow, we’ll have something better on our hands.
The first step in that revolution was plastics. No longer was it necessary to harvest elephant ivory or rubber tree plants to get materials that could be used in industrial machines and consumer goods. Now synthetic polymers could be manipulated chemically to create a material that was at the same time durable, flexible, and reusable: a material, in other words, like plastic. Following from the development of cellulose and Bakelite in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, respectively, plastic began to slowly conquer the world markets and to become the sine qua non of industrial technology. By the 1970s, the production of plastic had outmatched the production of steel worldwide. Surely the causes of environmental pollution were trumped forever.
But plastic was too durable and not reusable enough. The non-biodegradable nature of plastic made it an excellent material for high-stress machines, but a terrible material for preventing the causes of environmental pollution, of which it quickly became one. Today, plastic debris fills 25% of landfills, and it’ll continue to fill 25% of landfills for the foreseeable future. In trying to solve the causes of environmental pollution, we’ve created our own worst nightmare, and the dependency of industry on plastic means that no end is in sight.