Since the 1930s, when the product first hit the market, there has been a plastic toothbrush in every American bathroom. But if you are one of the growing number of people seeking to purge plastic from their lives, you can now buy a wooden toothbrush with boar’s-hair bristles, along with other such back-to-the-future products as cloth sandwich wrappers, metal storage containers and leather fly swatters.
The urge to avoid plastic is understandable, given reports of toxic toys and baby bottles, seabirds choking on bottle caps and vast patches of ocean swirling with everlasting synthetic debris. Countless bloggers write about striving — in vain, most discover — to eradicate plastic from their lives. “Eliminating plastic is one of the greenest actions you can do to lower your eco-footprint,” one noted while participating in a recent online challenge to be plastic-free.
Is this true? Shunning plastic may seem key to the ethic of living lightly, but the environmental reality is more complex.
Originally, plastic was hailed for its potential to reduce humankind’s heavy environmental footprint. The earliest plastics were invented as substitutes for dwindling supplies of natural materials like ivory or tortoiseshell. When the American John Wesley Hyatt patented celluloid in 1869, his company pledged that the new manmade material, used in jewelry, combs, buttons and other items, would bring “respite” to the elephant and tortoise because it would “no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.” Bakelite, the first true synthetic plastic, was developed a few decades later to replace shellac, then in high demand as an electrical insulator. The lac bugs that produced the sticky resin couldn’t keep up with the country’s rapid electrification.
Today, plastic is perceived as nature’s nemesis. But a generic distaste for plastic can muddy our thinking about the trade-offs involved when we replace plastic with other materials. Take plastic bags, the emblem for all bad things plastic. They clog storm drains, tangle up recycling equipment, litter parks and beaches and threaten wildlife on land and at sea. A recent expedition researching plastic pollution in the South Atlantic reported that its ship had trouble setting anchor in one site off Brazil because the ocean floor was coated with plastic bags.
Such problems have fueled bans on bags around the world and in more than a dozen American cities. Unfortunately, as the plastics industry incessantly points out, the bans typically lead to a huge increase in the use of paper bags, which also have environmental drawbacks. But the bigger issue is not what the bags are made from, but what they are made for. Both are designed, absurdly, for that brief one-time trip from the store to the front door.
In other words, plastics aren’t necessarily bad for the environment; it’s the way we tend to make and use them that’s the problem.
It’s estimated that half of the nearly 600 billion pounds of plastics produced each year go into single-use products. Some are indisputably valuable, like disposable syringes, which have been a great ally in preventing the spread of infectious diseases like H.I.V., and even plastic water bottles, which, after disasters like the Japanese tsunami, are critical to saving lives. Yet many disposables, like the bags, drinking straws, packaging and lighters commonly found in beach clean-ups, are essentially prefab litter with a heavy environmental cost.
And there’s another cost. Pouring so much plastic into disposable conveniences has helped to diminish our view of a family of materials we once held in high esteem. Plastic has become synonymous with cheap and worthless, when in fact those chains of hydrocarbons ought to be regarded as among the most valuable substances on the planet. If we understood plastic’s true worth, we would stop wasting it on trivial throwaways and take better advantage of what this versatile material can do for us.
In a world of nearly seven billion souls and counting, we are not going to feed, clothe and house ourselves solely from wood, ore and stone; we need plastics. And in an era when we’re concerned about our carbon footprint, we can appreciate that lightweight plastics take less energy to produce and transport than many other materials. Plastics also make possible green technology like solar panels and lighter cars and planes that burn less fuel. These “unnatural” synthetics, intelligently deployed, could turn out be nature’s best ally.
Yet we can’t hope to achieve plastic’s promise for the 21st century if we stick with wasteful 20th-century habits of plastic production and consumption. We have the technology to make better, safer plastics — forged from renewable sources, rather than finite fossil fuels, using chemicals that inflict minimal or no harm on the planet and our health. We have the public policy tools to build better recycling systems and to hold businesses accountable for the products they put into the market. And we can also take a cue from the plastic purgers about how to cut wasteful plastic out of our daily lives.
We need to rethink plastic. The boar’s-hair toothbrush is not our only alternative.
Susan Freinkel, the author of the forthcoming Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.