Myth No. 1
Nineteenth-century plastics were sustainable.
Most plastics today are derived from oil and gas, but the earliest industrialized plastics were sourced from trees (e.g., latex) and later cellulose. Celluloid, for example, replaced traditional uses of ivory and tortoise shell, giving the impression that it had environmental benefits. The radio program “Marketplace” credited it for helping to “preserve natural resources and animals, like the elephants.” The BBC hailed early plastics as “an environmental savior.” This sentiment echoes literature produced by the Celluloid Manufacturing Co., which in a 1878 pamphlet claimed that the advent of its plastic meant that “it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”
The historical record suggests otherwise. In fact, 19th-century plastics were more readily tied to the project of colonization than environmental conservation. Demand for gutta-percha, an early bio-based resin used to insulate telegraph cables for the administration of the British Empire, led to widespread deforestation in Southeast Asia. The result, concluded one historian, was nothing short of a “Victorian ecological disaster.” Celluloid production also required camphor, a tree-derived solvent and plasticizer sourced principally from Taiwan. As Toulouse Antonin Roy explains, three empires — China, Britain and Japan — vied to commodify the island’s camphor forests, eventually displacing several Indigenous communities. Likewise, natural rubber was tied to colonial projects and often violent subduing of people and land.
Myth No. 2
Mass production of plastics began in 1950.
PBS, National Geographic and Nature have all pinpointed 1950 as the year the mass production of plastics began. But 1950 actually marks the first year when global manufacturing data was compiled, according to scientist Jenna Jambeck, who with Roland Geyer and Kara Lavender Law used this data to estimate total worldwide plastic production in a 2017 paper. Their research helped the public grasp the sheer scale of plastics produced: roughly 4.4 billion pounds in 1950, which seems small compared with today. (In 2020, world production approached 809 billion pounds.)
To achieve this level of production, the industry had to build up over several decades, often benefiting from government assistance. Commercial production of Bakelite, the inaugural synthetic plastic, began in both Germany and the United States in 1910. The U.S. Tariff Commission counted 1.6 million pounds of coal-tar resins like Bakelite produced a decade later, in 1921, swelling to 34.2 million by 1931 and 141 million a few years after that.
World War II further accelerated plastics’ growth: War contracts expanded the infrastructure for existing plastics (e.g., acrylics, phenolics, PVC and polystyrene), and the Navy helped DuPont and Union Carbide secure the necessary licenses to commence production of polyethylene (then an emerging, British-developed plastic) on American shores.
As a result, over the 1940s, U.S. production rates increased more than sixfold, a history also told by marine sediment cores. In samples taken off the California coast, plastics and plastic fibers are evident even in pre-war sedimentary layers, markedly increasing after 1945, as plastics were pushed into consumer markets.
Myth No. 3
We know how long plastics last in the environment.
But scientists question how accurate, and even how meaningful, such exact figures are, since plastics’ endurance is a function of their environment. That could range from the bright, brackish sea surface to the dark interior of an acid-rich gut, the subsurface layers of terrestrial landscapes or the pressurized depths of a deep-sea trench. Plastics are a diverse class of contaminants containing complex mixtures of among 10,000 different monomers, additives and processing aids, making it difficult to estimate longevity, though scientists are working to discern better half-life estimates.
It may be hard to say definitively that “plastics are forever,” as a Nature Chemistry article asserts, but some could enter the geological record. And while many plastics resist degradation by design, they aren’t static. Museum curators tasked with preserving plastic artifacts know all too well that plastics discolor, desiccate, fissure and fracture, undergoing a range of physical changes, including becoming micro- and even nano-scaled particles. These can behave like other persistent pollutants: long-lived, mobile and prone to accumulate, insinuating themselves into Earth’s systems and cycles. These fragments also change chemically, releasing leachates as well as degradation products, note scientist Imari Walker and other researchers.
Myth No. 4
Bioplastics fix the problems of conventional fossil carbon plastics.
Bioplastics are an area of innovation and growing demand, with brands including Lego, Danone and Nestlé seeking alternatives to conventional plastics. Last fall, Coca-Cola introduced a 100 percent plant-based bottle, calling it a “major milestone” in its “sustainable packaging journey.” Often, these materials are touted as “green.”
But it is hard to speak generally about bioplastics’ promise: Some use the term to refer to plastics made from renewable, “bio-based” materials, such as corn and sugar cane, while others use it to describe “biodegradable” plastics, which might still be derived from fossil-carbon sources. Some bio-based plastics won’t biodegrade. And some “biodegradable” plastics may not biodegrade under certain environmental conditions, explain scientists Scott Lambert and Martin Wagner.
Merely shifting carbon sources doesn’t address the myriad other challenges that plastics pose. For example, even plant-based plastics can be chemically equivalent to — and as toxic as — their conventional counterparts, in part because they are as (if not more) reliant on additives or processing aids.
Myth No. 5
It is possible to clean up plastics.
Images of floating marine debris — and projects to clean it up — have captured the public imagination. In just one example, as of Jan. 1, YouTubers Mark Rober and MrBeast had raised $30 million to help the Ocean Conservancy and the Ocean Cleanup remove 30 million pounds of trash: beach and river-borne debris and discarded fishing gear. Their #TeamSeas campaign generated significant buzz, was plugged by Jimmy Kimmel and, as announced on Twitter, was backed by 600,000 donors.
But as #TeamSeas acknowledges, 30 million pounds, while an enormous quantity of plastic, represents less than one percent of the nearly 8.8 million metric tons added to the sea each year. This figure is expected to triple by 2040. While important, cleanup is a Sisyphean task, absent improved waste management and a reduction in production, concluded the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Plastic pollution is beyond the capacity of technological systems to remediate, writes plastics scholar Max Liboiron. Most plastics are minuscule fragments distributed below the sea surface, in the atmosphere, or are buried in sediments or shoreline sands. Other plastics have spread through freshwater systems or land: In fact, a recent United Nations report suggests that soils could contain even larger quantities of microplastics than oceans do. In addition to the plastics themselves, their associated pollutants (such as phthalates, brominated flame retardants and stabilizers like UV-328) are also ubiquitous. Together, they could interfere with Earth’s capacity to support life, conclude environmental chemist Hans Peter Arp and colleagues in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
But plastics pose problems beyond waste. Human rights violations have been documented across plastics’ life cycle, from the extraction of fossil carbons to the toxic releases from factories, incineration and open burning — a burden disproportionately borne by low-income communities and communities of color. Plastics also bear consequences for the climate and public health, suggesting that what needs to be cleaned up is production itself.