Above the Waterline: The Story of Plastics – from cue balls to microbeads

Plastics! For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, it’s the most memorable word from The Graduate: the iconic film in which Dustin Hoffman plays a college graduate who returns home to California suburbia to contemplate his future. Instead, he is pelted with advice from his parents’ friends, one of whom enthusiastically invokes the p-word – understood, by our generation, to suggest cheap conformity. Fifty years later, cheap plastics have saturated our world and changed the way we live.

The first synthetic polymer was invented as a substitute for natural ivory used in the manufacture of cue balls, when billiards became increasingly popular in the mid-19th century. The discovery was revolutionary in that manufacturing no longer needed to use all-natural products. Humans could create new materials and, as was argued at the time, protect the natural world from human destruction – or so they thought. Forty years later, Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic (meaning it contained no molecules found in nature) was invented for use in electrical systems.

The plastics industry received a major boost during World War II, when production increased by 300 percent in the U.S. and the surge continued post-war. According to Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, the synthetic substance “challenged traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture.” Lightweight, inexpensive and believed to be safe, it was considered the “material of a thousand uses.”

Despite the many benefits associated with plastics, including life-saving advances in medicine, this material of far more than a thousand uses is causing serious problems in hundreds of thousands of places around the world: massive patches of “plastic soup” in oceans, plastic debris along roadways and in waterways, plastic products filling landfills, microplastics in salt and freshwater systems, and toxic chemicals, used to shape and harden the plastic, in our bloodstream. These chemicals, released when plastic breaks down, can disrupt endocrine systems, causing cancer, infertility, birth defects and other ailments.

Half of the 300 million tons of plastic produced worldwide every year is made to be disposable; most of it cannot be recycled and is “single-use,” meaning it can only be used once before being thrown away or recycled. Think: plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, soda and water bottles and most food packaging. In the United States, more than 60 million plastic bottles are thrown away every day; one plastic bag has an average usable life of just 20 minutes.

A few years ago, grocery and chemical industry lobbyists at the Georgia State Capitol secured the passage of legislation in the Senate that would have kept local governments from banning plastic bags in their jurisdictions. The House defeated that “auxiliary packaging” measure, but municipalities got the message: there would be strong opposition if they tried to pass a bag-ban, as cities elsewhere have done.

Less visible, but potentially more harmful, is the plastic that is worked into clothing (fleece, nylon and polyester) and then released during washing; the fibers are so small that they pass through sewage plants into rivers, lakes and oceans. A recent report concluded that the Tennessee River is among the most plastic-polluted rivers in the world with 18,000 microplastic particles per cubic meter of water found in samples. Given the near uniform level of microplastics found throughout the river, researchers believe that the problem stems primarily from plastic litter: lightweight plastic packaging.

Wildlife – from insect larvae, small fish, amphibians and turtles to birds and larger mammals – mistake microbeads (bits of manufactured plastic in personal care products) for food, introducing the potential for toxicity into these animals and those higher in the food chain. Concerned about public health impacts, Congress passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act in 2015 to phase out the use of microbeads.

My daughter-in-law, Meredith, thinks a lot about our collective impacts on the natural world. She has lived in Indonesia (“where plastic waste is constantly in your face”), Japan (“where people consume a lot of plastic, but also recycle at a very high rate”) and a remote cabin near Napa, CA, where she and my son had to transport all their waste to a local facility (“it didn’t just magically disappear”).

To better understand how much single-use plastic she touches in a week, Meredith created a Hawaiian lei out of the waste and wore it in public. She says: “It made the plastic heavier, literally and metaphorically.” As the lei grew, she felt shame and didn’t go out in public as much. During a visit to a coffee shop, she asked the barista not to put a lid on her cup, so she wouldn’t waste the single-use plastic. The woman looked up and, ignoring Meredith’s comment and her lei of plastics, pointed to the jewelry she was also wearing, exclaiming: “I love your necklace!” Apparently, the lei of plastic waste was invisible to the woman – as this waste has become for far too many of us.

It’s time for everyone – including business, industry and government – to seriously implement the 4Rs Pledge: REFUSE (disposable plastic whenever possible), REUSE (durable, non-toxic bottles, bags and other items), REDUCE (your plastic footprint) and RECYCLE (what you can’t refuse, reduce or reuse).


Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Her Above the Waterline column recently won first place for opinion writing at the Georgia Press Association Awards. 

1 Comment
  1. Great article on an important problem! If you want to do something local about this problem, please join a thousand of your neighbors on April 6 for Sweep the Hooch! In one day we aim to remove tons of plastics from the Chattahoochee River. We will recycle whatever we can with the help of CHARM and Rubicon. We have more than 40 locations around the region to chose from, find them here: https://chattahoochee.org/sweep-the-hooch/

    Thank you!

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