…but it was in 1907 when a chemist, Belgian-born American Leo Baekeland, invented Bakelite? Never heard of Bakelite? This ground-breaking material was the first synthetic plastic, made entirely from fossil fuels. Baekeland used phenol, an acid derived from coal tar and his work formed the basis for further developments which gave the world cellophane in 1912, polyvinylchloride (PVC) in 1926, neoprene, vinyl, polythene, nylon and Teflon in the 1930s, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in 1941, Tupperware in 1948, polyester in 1950 and Kevlar in 1965. It was, still is, amazing stuff but it’s clear that it has had, and is still having a devastating effect on our world.
Plastic debris in the oceans was first observed in the 1960s, but would take another 50 years, until 2015, for real and lasting action to be taken. That was the year a YouTube video of researchers removing a four-inch plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose, went viral. This evocative image kicked off a surge of environmental activism which is unlikely to die down. After the recent news story of a pilot whale, which died off the coast of Thailand with 80 plastic bags in its stomach, SeaWorld, Ikea and Royal Caribbean joined a growing band of big businesses across the world that are introducing working practices that will dramatically reduce the eight million tonnes of plastic that pollute the oceans each year. This corporate activism started life as a fledgling movement to ban plastic straws, but it’s baffling that it’s taken so long to get to this point. Why is everything we buy covered in plastic, even products that come in their own natural packaging like fruit and veg? It doesn’t need to be and, as momentum gathers pace, more and more organisations will be joining the ranks of the environmentally responsible. Encouragingly, over 40 of the UK’s top companies (responsible for over 80% of supermarket plastic) are promising to make 100% of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. McDonald’s will have phased out all plastic straws by this September.
And we can all do our bit. We can all make small everyday changes – like swapping single use plastics to paper alternatives and not automatically reaching for the clingfilm, for example – and collectively make a huge difference.
Green Owl Canteen only uses paper straws.