New Internationalist


Issue 323

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The word plastic comes from the Greek ‘to form’. It was given this name because of its ability to be modelled simply by heating and cooling. Plastics are giant organic molecules that can be formed into different shapes.

The first plastic was invented in Britain in 1860 by Alexander Parkes. At the same time Phelan and Colander, a company in the US which manufactured billiard and pool balls, offered a prize of $10,000 for the invention of a satisfactory substitute for ivory. John Wesley Hyatt, an American inventor, developed a product which he patented under the name Celluloid.

Plastic really took off after the Second World War when it served as a substitute for scarce wood, glass and metal.


Making my shirt’s polyester released a quarter of the polyester’s weight in air pollution, counting nitrogen and sulphur oxides, hydrocarbons, particulates, carbon monoxide and heavy metals. These pollutants impair breathing, aggravate lung and heart diseases and suppress the immune system.

Making polyester also releases ten times the polyester’s weight in carbon dioxide, helping destabilize the global climate.

Stuff: the Secret Lives of Everyday Things, John C Ryan and Alan Thein Durning
( Northwest Environment Watch, 1997).


[image, unknown] Plastic waste in India totals 4.5 million tons a year.
[image, unknown] 1,337,700 Americans were employed in the plastics industry in 1996.
[image, unknown] Barely 4% of the three million tonnes of plastics thrown away every year in France is recycled.
[image, unknown] The plastic rings on six-packs do not break down for ten years and can trap marine animals. Abandoned plastic fishing line is responsible for 37 per cent of marine entanglements.
[image, unknown] Some plastics (the alkylphenols in PVC, polystyrene and phthalates) can be biologically active and have the ability to disrupt hormone cycles.2


Most plastics today come from petrochemicals. Crude oil is cracked in the presence of a finely-divided catalyst. This allows the production of many different hydrocarbons that can then be recombined to produce a whole range of other materials, including alcohols, detergents, synthetic rubber, glycerin, fertilizers, sulphur, solvents and the feedstocks for the manufacture of drugs, nylon, plastics, paints, polyesters, food additives and supplements, explosives, dyes and insulating materials. The petrochemical industry uses about five per cent of the total supply of oil and gas in the US. 1


Growth in world materials production 1960-95. 3

In 1995 nearly 10 billion tons of industrial and construction minerals, metals, wood products and synthetic materials entered the global economy. This is more than twice as much as in 1963 and the true figure is probably more than double this. Synthetics (which include plastics) increased by the largest amount — 5.6 fold. 3


Shoppers love it but environmentalists say the plastic shopping bag must go. The Government in Nepal is drafting a bill to ban them. Nepali environmentalists want to see the return of biodegradable packaging material like jute, cloth and paper bags.

In India, the states of Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim have already banned plastic bags and fine shopkeepers if any are found on their premises.

In Bangladesh there has been a chorus of demands for a complete ban on plastic bags ever since they contributed to the floods in Dhaka two years ago by clogging drains.

Suman Pradhan (Inter Press Service, Third World Network)

1 Encarta 97 Encyclopaedia
2 Our Stolen Future Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, John Peterson Myers, Abacus, 1999.
3 State of the World 1999, (Worldwatch Institute)

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This article was originally published in issue 323

New Internationalist Magazine issue 323
Issue 323

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