Our love-hate relationship with plastic started with the invention of a simple shopping bag. In 1965, Scandinavian shoppers discovered they no longer needed to bring their own canvas bags to the store. Thanks to the ingenious invention of engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin from Sweden, shoppers could from then on carry their groceries home in a light but sturdy plastic bag.
By folding, wielding and die-cutting a tube of plastic, Thulin had masterfully created the world’s first plastic bag. The design was simple and durable, and it was introduced to the world by a company aptly called Celloplast. The bags were popularized for their convenience and, later on, for their environmental edge: no clearcutting of trees needed. No matter the logic, people began grabbing the light, plastic handles and soon turned back to the stores for more.
From Thulin’s single plastic bag, fast forward a few generations, and we have become a planet of compulsive plastic bag users. We earthlings carry nearly one trillion plastic bags a year. Not surprisingly, Americans more than others—each person in America carry about 290 plastic bags each year filled with food, drinks, dishwashing liquids, and toothbrushes packaged, of course, in various kinds of plastic.
This habit, introduced and perfected by capitalist marketing, has made us into a planet of plastic pack rats.
Throwaway plastic, or polymers, are used for nearly everything these days. This habit, introduced and perfected by capitalist marketing, has made us into a planet of plastic pack rats. We have so much plastic trash that we cannot even find enough dump sites to dump the trash in. So, we also dump it into streams, rivers, and oceans.
Today, there are reportedly islands of plastic trash the size of small countries floating lazily on the seven seas. Every year, we dump about 5 million tons of plastic into the liquid backyards of fish, crabs and whales—not just plastic bags, but everything from plastic straws to plastic sandals, from plastic wrappers to plastic cups.
One garbage truck of this stuff is dumped into the oceans every single minute. By 2030, it will be two trucks per minute and by 2050, four. By that time, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Just let that sink in for a while—more plastic than swift moving schools of fish!
Several hundred million years ago the Tethys Ocean was a sprawling mass of strange fish and huge plants. When these organic masses died, they sunk through the dark, liquid depths where during millions of years they transformed into a black syrup.
And it is from this crude mass of oil that modern civilization has fueled its engines of progress, its assembly lines of cars and runways of planes. And, of course, Mr. Thulin’s first plastic bag was also made from it. Today, plastic is also made from natural gas.
The oil and gas made from organic matter over hundreds of millions of years at the bottom of the oceans have, through a combination of human ingenuity and short term, capitalist profit, been turned into artificial waves of trash. Eventually, these plastic waves will also sink to the bottom. But unlike the organic creatures that sunk millions of years ago, the plastic bags will take between 500 to 1000 years to degrade.
As the plastic bags, bottles, straws, wrappers and containers are tossed around in the oceans, parts of them do break down—into minute particles, five millimeters or less, of microplastics. These tiny pollutants are ingested by various forms of aquatic life, from tiny feeders like zooplankton to small fish, all the way up to whales and sharks.
Microplastics are also found in predators higher up the food chain, such as in polar bears. A study found that nearly 80 percent of life on the ocean floor hundreds of feet down had some form of microplastic in them.
Our plastic planet has finally come full circle: the oil that we pulled up from the oceans is now sinking back down in the form of microplastic flakes, infiltrating anything alive with mouths and pores in its wake.
Once these inorganic microplastics ends up inside the cells of fish or plankton, they cannot be digested. They are stuck inside the cells as foreign elements. There is even a fancy word for this: phagocytosis. Inorganic particles stuck in organic cells.
There are many sources of these microplastics. Very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastics are added as exfoliants in health and beauty products, from shampoos to toothpaste. Microplastics are also found in synthetic clothing, tea bags and glitter. As these tiny particles float down washing machine and shower drains, a large percentage eventually end up in our aquatic backyards.
So how do we stop the planet from drowning in disposable plastics? How do we stop whales from swallowing hundreds of plastic bags and birds from being strangled by them? How do we stop the silent cellular invasion called phagocytosis?
Green activist organizations inform us that there is a lot each one of us can do: 1) Bring your own bag to the grocery store. 2) Use reusable plastic containers. 3) Buy in bulk. 4) Say no to straws and plastic lids. 5) Bring your own take-out containers and cup. 6) Compost. 7) Use a glass water bottle. 8) Use a water filter. 8) Use only natural and organic shampoos and toothpastes. The list goes on and on.
Strategies have failed to recognize that our addiction to plastic has become systemic
Yes, there is a lot each one of us can do to reduce plastic trash. But, frankly, we have tried to follow the gospel of individual lifestyle change since the 1980s and look where we are today: at the point of covering the entire planet in various forms of throwaway polymers.
These strategies have failed to recognize that our addiction to plastic has become systemic; that we use plastic for nearly everything, and that we have become slaves to its ubiquitous presence. Seduced by its convenience, we have denied plastic’s environmental destruction. Meanwhile, corporations profit from our overconsumption and unwitting addiction. We are in need of a major detox.
But time is short. A 2018 study conducted by the Global Oceanic Environmental Survey (GOES) Foundation found that the oceanic ecosystem may collapse in 25 years due to a combination of plastic, acidification, and ocean pollution.
We need to move from an economy of ease and greed to an economy of knowledge-sharing and cooperation. And we need to do it fast.
If we want an ocean of fish rather than plastic, we require large scale political and economic systems change. We need to move from a culture of shallow, throwaway convenience to a culture of deep, environmental caring. We need to move from an economy of ease and greed to an economy of knowledge-sharing and cooperation. And we need to do it fast.
It is time to ban one-use plastics made from oil and gas from the business cycle for good. We need environmental science inventing bags and containers that are 100% compostable. In fact, Avantium, a Dutch company, is currently developing a promising biodegradable plastic made from plant sugars. Many countries, including Denmark and Ireland, have already banned the use of plastic bags. But that is just a start.
Collective action from business and politicians are now needed on a planetary scale. It is too late for incremental changes and reforms.
Collective action from business and politicians are now needed on a planetary scale. It is too late for incremental changes and reforms. We must end the use of oil-based throwaways for good.
If we want our children to experience blue oceans of fish, whales, and dolphins rather than plastic islands of trash, we need to implement zero waste policies throughout the industrial cycle—all over the planet. Bringing your own bag to the grocery store is no longer enough. It is time for a revolution, a planetary plastic rebellion.
Roar Bjonnes is the executive director and editor of Systems Change Alliance. He is the author of five books, has contributed essays in three other books and has written articles for several Norwegian newspapers and half a dozen international magazines and blogs. For more information about him and one of his books, see growinganeweconomy.com