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By Peter Bottomley

When Charles Goodyear developed Vulcanite in 1839 by treating natural rubber with sulphur, he had no idea his innovation would play a part in the start of the plastic revolution.

Goodyear showed his product at the Great Crystal Palace Exhibition in Hyde Park London in 1851, “a wonderful place”, according to Charlotte Bronte, who visited the exhibition twice. Coincidentally, there was an exhibit of local interest at Crystal Palace in 1851 – the Alpaca wool and cloth being shown by a man we now know as Sir Titus Salt.

But back to plastic. In 1862, Parkesine, the first thermoplastic, was shown at the International Exhibition in London by its inventor, Alex Parkes. It won a bronze medal for innovation. This was the real start of the plastic revolution, and led to the invention of celluloid.

The word ‘plastic’ was first used in 1909. Plastic is made from ethylene, a product formed from a mixture of crude oil and natural gas. This product then polymerises (molecules combining) and then all things ‘poly-’ can be made.

Plastic bagPlastic bags are made of high density polyethylene (HDPE); there are also low and linear low densities (LDPE /LLDPE). Polycarbons, polyester, polystyrene and polyurethane are all names we know, and are in everyday plastic things such as bottles, bags, toys, cutlery, bowls and even jewellery. Other things that are made from polyethylene include water pipes, fuel tanks and foam in chairs and mattresses, and the substance is also in paint and varnish. So plastic bags are just one part of the problem of plastic pollution that is sweeping the world at the moment.

How can a small thing weighing just a few grams and only millimetre thick cause so much trouble? Well, the reason is that in Britain alone we use at least 8 billion –  that’s about 130 per person – plastic bags every year, so you can now see the problem. The main difficulty is that the bags are not bio-degradable and take 450 years to break down. Paper bags take 3 weeks and Styrofoam cups take 50 years.

Plastic bags also get into the sea. Turtles eat them thinking they are jelly fish; this strangles them or blocks their digestive system leading to death. Dolphins play with bags and bottles floating in the sea. Many of these objects get wrapped around their mouths, causing starvation or drowning, as dolphins are air-breathing mammals like us. The bags have also been found inside blue whales, the largest animals on the planet. Sea birds eat the bags when they break down into polyethylene balls thinking they are fish eggs. Perhaps the most worrying thing is that plankton eat the balls, the fish eat the plankton and we eat the fish – the circle of life.

So by using the bags and throwing them away we are killing ourselves. The Minister for the Environment, the Natural Heritage Trust and many countries around the world have started to address the problem.

A number of Australian cities have banned the bag, as has the island of Zanzibar, and San Francisco in the USA was the first American city to ban the bag. Places in Britain such as Hebden Bridge have also banned them.

Some stores have stopped the bags from being given out to shoppers for a day or a week. This is good, but not good enough. Ireland has put a tax on bags to help with recycling or to put people off using them. Many places are making and selling canvas bags with their names on them, which is environmentally friendly as well providing great publicity.

The manufacturing process for the bags is being changed so that bio-degradable materials are used, but this is expensive at the moment. So it is up to us to see what we can do ourselves.

So how can you help? You could try to stop using plastic bags for a week, or carry canvas or recyclable bags in your car boot, so they are with you when you go shopping. It’s hard to imagine life with out the bags because they are so convenient, but it has to be done sooner rather than later.

Back to Sir Titus for a moment. He tried to clean up the air pollution in Bradford with something called a Rodda Smoke Burner, which he used in the Saltaire mills furnaces. If he was into pollution-saving ideas back then, let us carry it on now 150 or so years later, because 100 years is a long time in a human life, but not a long time in the life of something plastic.

C2 H4 is the chemical symbol for ethylene (plastic bags, to us mere mortals). (C to change  H for help)

Peter J Bottomley

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