This Month in Science: Plastic Free July


Have you ever thought about how many plastic items you use every day? How many of those are reusable and how many do you use just once and then toss? What happens to that single-use container when you’re done with it? Do you think you could go a whole month without using single-use plastic?

This month, Cape Fear Museum is going to try to do just that. We have joined the Plastic Free July challenge and will be limiting our single-use plastic waste, both as individuals and for all of our programs and events. Single-use plastic is any item that is used once and then thrown away or recycled. This includes items like plastic packaging, water bottles, straws, and to-go cup lids. Plastic Free July started in 2011 as an office initiative at WMRC Earth Cares in Perth, Australia. It is now a non-profit and a global initiative in which millions of people worldwide take part.

Plastic is a synthetic – or manmade – polymer invented as an inexpensive alternative to natural products such as ivory and tortoiseshell. A polymer is a material that is made from repeating units of the same building block. In 1869, John Wesley Hyatt created the first version of plastic, made from cellulose, to create inexpensive billiard balls1. The first fully synthetic plastic polymer, Bakelite, was invented by Leo Baekeland in 19071. At the time, the invention of plastic was revolutionary. Rare and expensive items became common and more affordable.

The production of plastic items ramped up dramatically during World War II. Natural resources were scarce, and plastic became the go-to substitute. Plastics were used to make parachutes, rope, aircraft windows1, and even necessities like combs for soldier’s hygiene kits, among many other items2. After the war, production shifted toward domestic items, and plastic rapidly became commonplace in the home.

Although plastic was hailed as a wonder material that could be shaped into anything and serve any purpose, by the 1960s, discarded plastic was beginning to show up in the oceans and the stomachs of marine birds3. The convenience of plastic resulted in the production of single-use items that rapidly fill waste streams and ultimately end up in the ocean. Litter and stray plastic on the land often get blown into rivers and other waterways that eventually lead to the ocean. If our current production and waste management doesn’t change, researchers estimate that there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste on our planet by 20504.

Debris in the ocean is harmful to marine animals and the entire ocean ecosystem. Plastic bags look like jellyfish to a hungry sea turtle, and plastic lighters look like food to albatross. Fishing nets and six-pack rings can entangle whales, dolphins, and other marine animals. Plastics can take hundreds of years to degrade, if they degrade at all. Many plastics simply break down into tiny pieces called microplastics that get eaten by fish and can ultimately end up in the food we consume5.

While this problem isn’t going to solve itself, there are many things you can do as an individual to alleviate it. Refusing single-use plastic items like straws, plasticware, grocery bags, and water bottles is the best place to start. Shopping at bulk stores and refilling your own glass containers are also great ways to avoid plastic. Recycling is an important and effective way to control plastic, but only about 9% of plastics get recycled globally4,6. If your area doesn’t recycle, try to get a program started and encourage your friends and family to recycle too. Find out what’s recyclable in New Hanover County and where your closest recycling drop off point is by visiting Environmental Management.   

Will you join Cape Fear Museum in the Plastic Free July challenge? For helpful tips for avoiding single use plastic, check out Plastic Free July and My Plastic Free Life. For local resources check out the Plastic Ocean Project.



Previous Columns

June: All About Alligators

Rolmonica music player made with “Genuine Bakelite,” 1928
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