Peak plastic: The proliferation of plastic

Collecting Rubbish in West Java

Dorothy Broom tells a personal story of the history and sociology of consumer plastics. She is 70 years old; her lifespan encompasses the development and proliferation of petroleum-based consumer plastics.

MY training is in social science, not natural science or chemistry, so I won’t try to tell you anything about marine biology, biodegradation versus photo-degradation, how big the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has become, or why we have minute plastic beads in toothpaste and face wash.

When I was a child, we had practically no modern plastics—certainly no single-use plastics. I remember food packed in plant-based cellophane, waxed (not plastic-coated) paper, alfoil, glass and cardboard. Grocery bags were paper. Food and beverage containers were returned and refilled, including the metal pie plates from the local bakery. Drinking straws were glass, metal or cardboard. Take-away drinks were sold in glass bottles or metal cans or cardboard cups with no lid. I remember getting my first few plastic bags in the 1960s which were scarce and robust so we washed and dried them so they could be reused. Cling wrap was around, but it was an expensive luxury. If anybody was concerned about pollution or harm from plastics, I didn’t know about it.

By the late 1960s there was an awareness of air and water contamination. Having grown up in Los Angeles, I knew about air pollution from personal experience. Rivers in industrial areas were catching fire. After university, I read books such as The Population Bomb (1968) and Limits to Growth (1972) and began to worry about what we humans were doing to the planet. I joined small, grassroots community organisations which lobbied for environmental protection, retaining deposits on beverage containers and municipal recycling. One group took a field trip to the local tip. It was deeply disturbing to see the astonishing quantity of potentially useful material being discarded by a university town of only 30,000.

My activism on environmental issues continued after migrating to Australia in 1971. I was part of a team that prepared a research paper on beverage containers for a parliamentary inquiry. I sewed calico bags for friends and was naïve enough to think that threats to the environment were the result of ignorance. I thought that when the potential hazards were documented and better known the problems would disappear. The task was to raise consciousness. For me, plastics remained an occasional convenience but were not yet on my radar as a particular concern.

Around the 1990s I noticed that plastic was everywhere, including in a lot of places it didn’t belong such as waterways, around the necks of sea turtles and in the gullets of pelicans. Always a lover of the ocean and its inhabitants, I found the images of dead and suffering marine life enormously distressing. Efforts to ban plastic six-pack rings (seen to be a significant culprit) provoked push back from the plastics and packaging industries.

Read the full article in ReNew 133.