The World Is Drowning in Plastic. Here’s How It All Started

Matt Simon

In A Poison Like No Other, Matt Simon reveals a whole new dimension to the plastic crisis, one even more disturbing than plastic bottles washing up on shores and grocery bags dumped in landfills. Dealing with discarded plastic is bad enough, but when it starts to break down, the real trouble begins. The very thing that makes plastic so useful and ubiquitous – its toughness – means it never really goes away. It just gets smaller and smaller: eventually small enough to enter your lungs or be absorbed by crops or penetrate a fish’s muscle tissue before it becomes dinner.

Unlike other pollutants that are single elements or simple chemical compounds, microplastics represent a cocktail of toxicity: plastics contain at least 10,000 different chemicals. Those chemicals are linked to diseases from diabetes to hormone disruption to cancers.

A Poison Like No Other is the first book to fully explore this new dimension of the plastic crisis, following the intrepid scientists who travel to the ends of the earth and the bottom of the ocean to understand the consequences of our dependence on plastic. As Simon learns from these researchers, there is no easy fix. But we will never curb our plastic addiction until we begin to recognize the invisible particles all around us.

Purchase A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies here.

The year was 1863, and famous billiard player Michael Phelan was worrying about the sustainability of the very billiard balls that made him a fortune. At the time, the spheres were hand-carved straight out of elephant tusks, ivory being about the toughest material the animal kingdom had to offer. But the things were expensive, and poorly-made balls still couldn’t withstand repeated smashing without cracking. Also, what if there were suddenly no elephants? Whence would billiard balls come then? Phelan hadn’t a clue. But he did have $10,000, which he offered as a prize for the inventor who could find a suitable replacement for ivory. Thus Phelan would save the game of billiards and, sure, maybe a few elephants too.

Heeding the call was one John Wesley Hyatt, a 26-year-old journeyman printer. He fiddled with a few different recipes, including a core of wood fiber covered with a mixture of shellac (a resin derived from the excretions of the lac insect) and ivory dust, which was sort of cheating. That and the faux ivory ball didn’t have the hardness of the real thing, so billiard players spurned it.

Eventually Hyatt began playing around with cellulose nitrate—cotton treated with nitric and sulfuric acids—at his own peril, given that the compound was extremely flammable. Dissolve this cellulose nitrate in alcohol and ether and you get a syrupy solution called collodion, which surgeons used to bind wounds during the Civil War. Hyatt mixed this collodion with camphor (derived from the camphor tree) and found that the product was strong yet moldable. He called it celluloid, and billiard players called it a mixed blessing: Celluloid shaped into balls behaved enough like ivory, but being made of cellulose nitrate, they were still … fickle. “Consequently,” Hyatt later admitted, “a lighted cigar applied would at once result in a serious flame, and occasionally the violent contact of balls would produce a mild explosion like a percussion guncap.”

But no matter. Hyatt had invented the first practical, mass-producible plastic, a material that under the right temperature and pressure could be molded into all manner of shapes beyond a sphere. That meant engineers and designers had a new class of material to play with, albeit a volatile one. (Early film was made of celluloid and was therefore super flammable. That’s why in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, when the good guys burn down the theater with all the Nazis inside, they used a pile of film as an accelerant.) They were no longer stuck tinkering with natural materials like wood and leather, as humans had done for millennia. And glass was a hassle, given its fragility, whereas celluloid was strong yet lightweight.

However, though considered a plastic, celluloid was itself largely a natural material, as the cellulose in cellulose nitrate came from cotton and the camphor came from trees—celluloid literally means “cellulose-like,” as asteroid means “star-like.” (Credit where credit is due: Hyatt had improved on what was technically the first plastic, the cellulose-based Parkesine, which Alexander Parkes never managed to commercialize.)

Scientists concocted the first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite, in 1907. It was borne of the world’s shift to electric power, which required insulators for wiring. Shellac did the job, but it was derived from an insect, so manufacturers were limited in the amount of natural material they could procure. By contrast, chemists whipped up the ingredients in Bakelite—phenol and formaldehyde—in the lab. The material kept things from lighting on fire and was durable to boot.

Humans had let the cat out of the plastic bag. Now that scientists knew how to create fully synthetic plastics, and now that the oil and gas business was booming, they could replace natural materials one by one. And the pace of plastic production only accelerated with the material shortages of World War II: Nylon replaced cotton, pure rubber was cut with synthetic rubber in tires, and plastic added to glass turned it bulletproof.

To say that WW II hooked the world on plastic like it was an opioid would be an insult to opioids. You can treat a person addicted to a drug, but you can’t get plastic out of humanity’s system—ever. Being honest, plastic is a miracle material. Get rid of single-use plastics like shopping bags, to be sure, but not plastic syringes and other medical devices, not plastic wiring insulators, not the many components in our cars and electronics. Level any criticism at the petrochemical industry about how they’re drowning the world in plastic and the first thing they’ll remind you is just how useful the stuff is. It’s our fault as consumers that we’re misusing plastic instead of recycling, which is a bit like opioid manufacturers blaming patients for getting hooked on their drugs.

Like opioids, plastics make everything better in the moment, temporarily masking the ravages of addiction. Just ask the folks jumping for plasticine joy in a two-page spread in the August 1, 1955, issue of Life Magazine, “Throwaway Living: Disposable Items Cut Down Household Chores,” which must have struck even a vaguely reasonable reader as preposterous. The photo features a radiant nuclear family with arms outstretched, as if worshiping the items falling all around them—plates, cups, utensils, bins, a disposable diaper. “The objects flying through the air in this picture,” the story reads, “would take 40 hours to clean—except that no housewife need bother. They are all meant to be thrown away after use.” Men need not worry about being left behind in this brave new disposable world, the article hints, thanks to “two items for hunters to throw away: disposable goose and duck decoys.” This is the central paradox of plastic: The material is exceedingly valuable in its versatility, yet worthless in that it can be chucked in the bin after one use.

The advertisements on the five pages following the spread are like a staircase leading to the modern consumerist plasticine hellscape. Texaco hypes “that ‘cushiony’ feeling” of its chassis lubrication. Some sort of living doll with hair made of yarn pours a box of Carnation instant chocolate drink into a glass. “Big-screen color television has arrived!” shouts RCA Victor. A man in a shiny convertible has a problem: He and his kids are enjoying hotdogs, yet deep down he knows that “brushing after meals is best, but it’s not always possible.” Luckily he brushed before breakfast with Procter and Gamble’s Gleem toothpaste, which keeps your maw fresh all day long.

In the decades after Life announced the arrival of throwaway living, oil and gas companies like Texaco made the throwaway dream a throwaway reality. A beverage market once cornered by Carnation is now overflowing with brands of soda and energy drinks and juices, all sealed in plastic bottles. The mammoth flat-screen descendants of RCA Victor’s 21-inch color TV are made of plastic. Toothpaste isn’t just sequestered in plastic tubes—until very recently, it was plastic.

In the early 2010s, brands began phasing out the plastic microbeads they’d been adding to toothpaste and face scrubs to boost their scrubbing power. Some of these products contained hundreds of thousands of microplastics, which washed off of your face and out to sea. It turned out that consumers weren’t particularly happy when they realized what was happening—President Barack Obama made that displeasure into law by signing the Microbead-Free Waters Act in 2015, four decades after microplastic scrubbers were patented in the cosmetics industry.

“In that bill, it was only for wash-off cosmetics, and that was mostly the facial scrubs,” says Marcus Eriksen, cofounder of the Gyres Institute, a nonprofit that’s tackling plastic pollution. “But then in cosmetics, there are tons and tons of shredded microplastic particles used as fillers, things to keep stuff on your face for a long time.” Eyeliners, mascaras, lipsticks—they’re still loaded with tens of thousands of microplastics each. Microbeads act like ball bearings, making the products more spreadable and silky-feeling. By one estimate, over 3 million pounds of microplastics from personal care products still enter the aquatic environment every year. Some 210 trillion microbeads flush out of China alone annually. And while yes, great, the US banned microbeads in wash-off cosmetics, all those particles are still tumbling around the environment and will continue to do so for a long, long time.

The microbead battle peaked and waned, and the world patted itself on the back—skirmish against corporations won. But people didn’t know the half of the microplastic problem. Not even environmental scientists knew the half of it. Microplastic had by this time become ubiquitous in the environment, and only a small community of researchers had noticed.

Exactly how much plastic humanity has produced thus far, we’ll never know. But scientists have taken a swing at an estimate: more than 18 trillion pounds, twice the weight of all the animals living on Earth. Of that, 14 trillion pounds have become waste. Just 9 percent of that waste has been recycled, and 12 percent has been incinerated. The rest has been landfilled or released into the environment, where each bag and bottle and wrapper shatters into millions of microplastics. Sure, many plastic products are relatively long-lasting, like TVs and car components, but 42 percent of plastic has been packaging, very little of which has been recycled.

There’s so much plastic pollution out there that if you were to gather it all up and turn it into cling wrap, you’d have more than enough to cover the globe. And this is very much a cling-wrapping in progress: Every year, nearly 18 billion pounds of plastic enter just the oceans—one garbage truck full every minute. Just the amount of microplastics entering the environment is the equivalent of every human on Earth walking up to the sea and tossing in a grocery bag every week. In North America, where microplastic emissions are particularly high, it’s more like each person contributing three bags a week.

In 1950, when the wide-scale manufacture of plastic was taking off, the industry produced 4.4 billion pounds of resins and synthetic fibers. By 2015, that number had increased almost 200-fold: 838 billion pounds, half of which was single-use plastic—600 million plastic bags are now used every hour, enough to wrap around the planet seven times if you tied them all together. The average American generates almost 300 pounds of plastic waste a year, more than twice that of someone living in the European Union. By 2050, humanity will be churning out over 3 trillion pounds of plastic annually, equivalent to 300 million elephants. That number is all the more stunning when you consider that one of plastic’s charms is that it’s far lighter than other packaging materials like glass—and it’s certainly less dense than an elephant—so you need a whole lot of plastic to reach these weights.

More than half of the plastic ever produced has come in the last two decades, and production is continuing to grow exponentially as Big Oil embraces the inevitable: Humanity will someday ditch fossil fuels as fuels, but it’ll be impossible to ditch the plastic made from fossil fuels. By 2040, the flow of plastic waste into aquatic ecosystems is projected to triple—that means releasing an additional 1.5 trillion pounds of plastic into the environment, and that’s a scenario that assumes immediate and drastic action to reduce waste. By the middle of this century, humanity will have spent a hundred years producing a total of 75 trillion pounds of plastics and additives, equal to 100,000 Empire State Buildings, at which point four garbage trucks of the material will enter the ocean every minute. And around then, marine plastic will finally outweigh all the fish in the sea.

From A Poison Like No Other by Matt Simon. Copyright © 2022 Matthew Brian Simon. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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