Plastic has been in the press a lot lately for the damage it has been causing to the world’s oceans, but it might come as a surprise that its invention is intricately linked to an effort to avoid an environmental disaster.
In the second half of the 19th century, the world faced a crisis that stemmed from the love of billiards. Elephants were being slaughtered in their thousands so that people could harvest their tusks to make high quality billiard balls. Between three and five could be made from a tusk, meaning at least two animals had to be killed for every set of balls. Once billiards found its way out of the parlours of upper class British homes and into the saloons of America, this became unsustainable. By the middle of the century, the world was consuming at least one million pounds of ivory a year.
Because of fears over the elephant’s demise – and, let’s be honest, because the price of ivory was increasing as it became scarcer – an alternative to the slaughter was sought. Michael Phelan, “the father of American billiards”, was particularly keen to find a cheaper billiard ball and, in 1863, took out an ad offering the handsome sum of US$10,000 (roughly $200,000 today) for the invention of a substitute for ivory. John Wesley Hyatt, a young printer with no formal training in chemistry, took up the challenge. He began experimenting with various solvents and six years later stumbled upon something that would transform the world as we know it: celluloid, the first industrial plastic.
A cheap and indispensable environmental saviour
Celluloid wasn’t the perfect substitute for billiard balls – its volatility meant two balls hitting each other would produce “a mild explosion” like a gun going off – but it quickly began to replace ivory and other everyday materials. Plastic had a number of properties that made it attractive and, eventually, indispensable to modern life: it could be moulded into pretty much any form and hardened or left flexible as desired; it was waterproof, so wouldn’t rot like wood or corrode like metal; it could come in any colour, allowing it to imitate plenty of expensive materials; it was incredibly durable, as we are all too aware of today; and, perhaps most importantly, it was amazingly cheap.
From the start, it was hailed as an environmental saviour. Not only did it prevent the demise of elephants at the time, it also saved hawksbill turtles from having to provide the world’s tortoiseshell combs and coral from the desire for brightly coloured jewels. An 1878 sales pamphlet for celluloid boasted: “As petroleum came to the relief of the whale, so has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”
So, we embraced plastic with a clean conscience. Although, as it had the added benefit of being very convenient, we clearly overdid it. A famous 1955 edition of LIFE magazine waxed lyrical about the benefits of throwaway living. Next to an image of a happy family being showered by various single use, disposable plastic items, including disposable guest towels and duck and goose decoys “for hunters to throw away”, the article crowed: “The objects flying through the air in this picture would take 40 hours to clean – except no housewife need bother. They are all meant to be thrown away after use.”
We should learn the lessons of the past
The legacy of this wholehearted embrace of throwaway living is that we find ourselves in a situation where the world is producing 300 million tonnes of plastic a year; that’s more than 660,000 times the tonnage of ivory that proved so unsustainable in the 1800s. It’s also a figure that’s expected to triple by 2050. Most worrying of all, it is estimated that eight million tonnes of the stuff finds its way into the world’s oceans every year, and plenty more is polluting the land. The upshot is that plastic ingestion and entanglement is harming and killing, amongst other animals, the elephants, turtles, and corals it was created to save.
Thankfully, the world has woken up to this environmental catastrophe. People are demanding a solution and governments, academics, businesses and NGOs are scrambling to find one.
But the story of plastic should give us pause for thought. Will the solutions we promote also have dire consequences down the line? The last thing we want is to introduce a replacement for plastic that will end up causing harm to us or the environment in future.
There are steps we can take to make sure it doesn’t happen. Stay tuned to find out what they are in an upcoming blog post.