Managing Our Plastic Addiction
The invention of synthetic plastic in 1907 by Belgian-born American immigrant, Leo Hendrik Baekeland, gradually and completely changed life for people around the world. In the search for a substitute to shellac–a natural electrical insulator–Baekeland invented Bakelite. Because it provides endless possibilities with its unique ability to be molded into virtually anything, Bakelite was marketed as “the material of a thousand uses.” Over time, plastic evolved even further and replaced our reliance on natural materials such as metal, wood, stone, and animal tusks, becoming the material of infinite uses. Indeed, the development of plastic has proven invaluable to people and the environment. However, as with all good things, there is always a price to pay. Unfortunately, plastic products show up in places we don’t want them to; piling up in landfills, blocking our waterways, and polluting our oceans. We are endowed by our Creator for good, so how can we utilize plastic in the countless beneficial ways it is offered without harming our health and contaminating our environment?
In the 1960s, plastic began gaining popularity due to its exceptionally versatile characteristics. Our lives today are saturated with plastic products; from the medical field, tech devices, furniture, toys, car and plane parts, to food containers and drinking vessels; reliance on plastic is everywhere. In addition to being precisely moldable, plastic is light yet durable, provides a practical alternative to glass and ceramics, is cheap to produce, and sterile enough to be used in medical procedures and devices. It is indeed difficult to imagine a day without plastics because they make our lives easier, healthier, and safer. For example, safety helmets people use for riding a motorcycle or bike are nearly 100% plastic. Plastics also furnish our lifestyles; whether it’s the cellphone in our hands, the clean water delivered to our faucets, the television mounted on our walls, or the structural foundations of our homes, innumerable lifestyle possibilities would not be available if not for plastic.
As practical human beings, we know that there is no such thing as an all-around good thing. Everything has its downfalls and when it comes to plastics, there is no exception. With increased reliance on plastic as an alternative to natural resources, we gradually learn the negative result of the proliferation of plastics in our lives. As we become increasingly aware of taking care of the environment and reducing our waste, we also cannot ignore the collecting plastic debris, piece by piece occupying vast miles of ocean space, clogging our waterways, and piling up in landfills. The troubling effect of plastic waste certainly cannot be disregarded. Since the chemical structure of most plastics renders them resistant to natural processes of degradation, plastic pollution has become a leading environmental plague. According to Rick LeBlanc, an expert in the area of sustainable packaging, “Normally, plastic items can take up to 1,000 years to decompose in landfills. But plastic bags we use in our everyday life take 10-1,000 years to decompose, while plastic bottles can take 450 years or more.”
There are solutions to this epidemic which include what I learned in grade school as the 3 Rs: reuse, recycle, and reduce. According to Laura Parker, a National Geographic staff writer who specializes in covering climate change and marine environments, “A whopping 91% of plastic isn’t recycled. Billions of tons of plastic have been made over the past decades, and much of it is becoming trash and litter.” When we reuse and recycle rather than tossing away, we reduce the need to create more plastic products, thus helping to stave off what many experts fear will be a time in the not so distant future where the ocean will be filled with more plastic waste than fish. Roland Geyer from the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, specializes in industrial ecology and found that “The rapid acceleration of plastic manufacturing, which so far has doubled roughly every 15 years, has outpaced nearly every other man-made material.” Unlike other man-made materials such as steel, nylon, and glass, the lifespan of plastic products in our lives average under a year.
Tips for consuming less plastic as described by Stephanie R. Kinnon, a Vancouver-based freelance writer, include:
In addition to the negative impact we inflict on the environment with our over-consumption, lack of recycling, and reliance on plastics, there is also a documented adverse effect on our personal health. For example, plastic containers are made with additives such as bisphenol-A (BPA), an industrial chemical that some experts claim is toxic because it binds to estrogen receptors and influences bodily processes such as cell repair, fetal development, growth, energy, reproduction, and fertility. When certain plastic containers are made, BPA is added to aid in product resiliency. BPA is meant to remain sealed within the product, however, it commonly seeps into the food or beverages the container is holding. Given this information, BPA has been banned or restricted on several fronts, however the common replacements, bisphenol-S or bisphenol-F are similar to BPA in structure and toxic effect. To minimize BPA exposure, Aline Petre MS, RD, recommends avoiding packaged foods, drinking from glass bottles, being selective with toys, not microwaving plastic, and only buying powdered infant formula.
Whether we like it or not, plastics are here to stay. Despite the negativity surrounding them, plastics are critical to our modern lives. Without plastics, we would not have much of the technology we enjoy and depend on such as cell phones, computers, TVs, and lifesaving medical devices. Plastics’ versatility has raised our standard of living and helped shift reliance from natural materials in a safer, lighter, cheaper, reliable, and durable manner. It is incumbent upon each one of us to do our part in becoming plastic savvy to preserve our environment and protect our health. We must reduce our waste by choosing reusable and recyclable plastics to keep them out of landfills as well as out of the water we share with other living creatures. When we are done with our plastic products, we should take responsibility for delivering them to reputable recycling centers where they are converted into other useful products. The benefits of recycling are far reaching as they include reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators, conserving natural resources, preventing pollution by reducing the need to collect new raw materials, and saving energy.
As Muslims who seek to follow in the footsteps of our ultimate altruistic role model, Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), we should heed his teachings when he advised us to hold ourselves accountable for our actions and to avoid going into excess as reported by Abu Huraira, “Verily Allah likes three things for you and He disapproves three things for you. He is pleased with you that you worship Him and associate nor anything with Him, that you hold fast the rope of Allah, and be not scattered; and He disapproves for you irrelevant talk, persistent questioning and the wasting of wealth.”—(Sahih Muslim, Book 30, Hadith 12. Wealth comes in many forms, including a healthy environment. In the Quran, God commands us to avoid wasting resources and to be mindful of our guardianship role. He says, “But seek, through that which Allah has given you, the home of the Hereafter; and [yet], do not forget your share of the world. And do good as Allah has done good to you. And desire not corruption in the land. Indeed, Allah does not like corrupters.” (Quran 28:77).
Asma Jarad is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor published across multiple forums.