Aus dem einst technologisch fortschrittlichen Kunststoff ist längst eine kaum noch zu bewältigende Belastung für die Umwelt geworden – eine Chance für Wissenschaftler, nun ein umweltschonendes Material zu entwickeln? Von LUCY SIEGLE Everybody is moved by the plastic pandemic, but whenever I bring up the possibility of using something else, a chorus of manufacturers and retailers tells me I must not demonize this “miracle material”. After all, it has been included in heart valves, the cockpits of Second World War allied bomber aircraft and bulletproof vests — and it has enabled space travel. It is heroic by implication. To which I can only reply: “Yes, but what about the spork, a sort of spoon, fork and knife combo?” As I watched said sporks roll off the extruding machines at a Northampton factory, I was struck by the enthusiasm of the factory boss. He talked of the lightning speed of production (although he did not mention the lightning speed of disposal) and cutting-edge R&D. It was as if we were about to witness the next generation of the Apple Watch rather than a disposable, cutlery hybrid for the “lunchables” market.
It’s pretty clear that plastic is a stupid material to pick for everyday use. First, it doesn’t go anywhere. Since plastic was commercialized and brought to market in the 1950s, 8.3 billion tons have been created. That’s the weight of one billion elephants. According to a groundbreaking study published last year, led by Professor Roland Geyer, just 9 per cent has been recycled, 12 per cent incinerated and 79 per cent has accumulated in landfills or the wider environment. So that’s the “worthy” argument, if you like. But perhaps we should concentrate more on our lack of technological ambition. Is plastic really the best we can do?
Once, perhaps. The great-grandfathers of plastic — Alexander Parkes, John Wesley Hyatt and Leo Baekeland — undertook thousands of dangerous experiments with combustible ingredients. This was breakthrough chemistry. They moved away from the confines of classic organic chemistry.
For the first time, limits weren’t set by using wood from trees or ore dug up from the ground, where the behaviour, amount and structure of the material was already dictated. Instead, chemists were able to alter the molecular chain of plastics, giving the material different properties. It could bend, stretch or become translucent or incredibly durable. It put the chemists in control.
This must have really had the wow factor at the time, but now? Is this the extent of our ambition? Why aren’t we focused on the material that will define us, in a new, post-plastics era?
This complacency is matched by a curious tolerance for really terrible design. We all have multiple examples. My biggest this year was a BA short-haul flight to Zurich (yes, I know, carbon emissions). The coffee was poured in a giant sippy cup, made from multiple polymers and using a “patent-pending” mesh spout. It was so counterintuitive and so filled with possibilities for causing injury that each passenger had to be shown how to use it by the aircrew. We landed before my instruction was complete. But my true nemesis is the shrink-wrapped coconut. Today, you’ll find a nextgeneration version in almost every supermarket in Britain. Not only are they shrink-wrapped, but they are fitted with a plastic ring pull.
There is plenty to worry about. In the UK, we’re world leaders in consumption of wet wipes (10.8 billion of these plastic-based products are used every year) and plastic-
“Is plastic really the best we can do?”