Whither thou goest?


In “The Graduate” (the movie, for those of you who still qualify as youngsters), one of the most memorable lines was spoken to Ben (Dustin Hoffman) at his graduation party. 

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.Ben: Yes, sir?

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Ben: Yes sir, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Ben: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Ben: Yes, I will.

Mr. McGuire: Enough said. That’s a deal.

“The Graduate” was released in 1967, early enough for a few folks to see the coming consequences of plastics, but before those consequences were seen to be quite literally choking the life out of the planet. A recent piece in The New Yorker (July 3, 2023) shines a light on how pervasive plastics have become, acknowledging the societal benefits while pointing out the darker side of something we cannot seem to do without, even if we wanted to — and, after looking at some of the research, we might well want to.

Believed to be the first commercially produced plastic, celluloid — a mixture of nitrocellulose and camphor — came on the scene around the time of the Civil War as a material for billiard balls. It was, in part, a noble effort to reduce the slaughter of elephants for ivory, the then-dominant billiard ball material. One might also recall that celluloid was used for a long time for [highly flammable] photographic film. Reportedly the experimental billiard balls were sufficiently flammable as to cause a small explosion when hitting each other with enough force, causing a stir in at least one Colorado pool hall. Given the common practice of carrying a gun those days (OK, these days, too), one might imagine the peril. Still, the downside of plastics in that context was limited.

Fast forward to the world of polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, low-density polyethylene, polyester, polypropylene, Styrofoam, Plexiglas, Mylar, Teflon, and polyethylene terephthalate (familiarly known as PET). It would be much easier to name the products that do NOT include plastic in some iteration. And that’s just the stuff that we obtain on purpose. One cannot avoid ingesting or breathing microplastics, those little buggers that are the “fallout” of the Plastic Age. To be fair, there’s no doubt that plastics have benefitted the lives of humans in the relatively short time they’ve been around; however, the question that should have been asked (and seldom is), like so much of what humans bring to the table, is “what are the consequences?” And, more to the point, “can we repair the damage for a cleaner path forward?” 

The numbers are staggering; plastic pollution has been found from Mt. Everest to the deepest parts of the ocean. In 1950 the estimated yearly production of plastics was 1.5 million metric tons. In 2018 the yearly production was around 359 million metric tons; up to 12.7 million metric tons end up in the oceans. Per year.

It will be incumbent upon the scientific community to come up with ways to safely eliminate the overwhelming scourge of plastic pollution, because, frankly, recycling it isn’t the solution. My optimistic self — taking a hit on a regular basis — tells me that if humans figured out a way to produce plastics, someone will find a way to put the genie back in a non-plastic container. A couple of seemingly safe and effective possibilities are plastic-eating bacteria and mushrooms, noted in a list of “10 Scientific Solutions to Plastic Pollution,” from Earth.org. Those solutions have to be paired with an elimination of the source, and the development of more alternatives. Won’t be easy, or quick, but like so much of what we face in the realm of planetary survival, the best time to start would have been a long time ago; the next best time is today.