In “The Graduate” the aimless college graduate Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) was approached by Mr. McGuire who wished to share “just one word.” He said, “Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”
For a lot of people, the most serious threat to life on Planet Earth is global warming, allegedly caused by higher CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels in our atmosphere. Is this really the biggest threat? An NOAA article from January 2020 states that the average global temperature for 2019 was 2º F higher than 1880 to 1890 (averaged together), with a graph showing the rise starting about 1910, while a November 2019 article shows that the CO2 in our atmosphere is 10 times greater today than it was in 1900.
However the November article also shows that since 2006 the rate of temperature increase has been declining. So what does this suggest? It suggests that global temperatures may be approaching a new equilibrium, and if the trend since 2006 continues, that global cooling may even be coming. Why is this happening? The title of a January 2020 Boston University article declares, “As our planet gets greener, plants are slowing global warming.”
It explains: plants consume CO2 and emit oxygen (which humans and animals need to live) and water vapor, which helps cool the planet. Plants around the globe are greening up as they consume more CO2.
An article I saw some time ago compared old black and white pictures in the high Sierra Nevada mountains to recent pictures of those same places - the increased vegetation was obvious.
The earth has tremendous self-regulating properties, and it is happening in climate change. Recently, scientists found a black fungus growing on walls in Chernobyl, consuming and neutralizing the radiation from its meltdown, while others found coral in the oceans are migrating to cooler latitudes. These are further examples of the earth’s self-regulation.
Beyond that, solar and wind power crossed a threshold recently - the cost to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity from them now rivals gas and coal. This means market forces are causing lower fossil-fuel usage, lowering CO2 emissions.
With plastics, however, things are different. Market demand continues to increase, and there is no earthly self-regulation because modern plastic — since its invention as bakelite in1907 — does not decompose. Bacteria, viruses, fungus, have not yet found it as food.
Waste plastic, therefore, is projected to last for 500 to 5,000 years. While this presents a terrestrial threat, the greater threat is in our oceans. Plastic refuse is being found in the stomachs of aquatic birds and large fish that it has killed. Micro-plastic is also being found in smaller marine life, meaning it is finding its way into the food chain.
Perhaps it is time to shift our attention and innovative spirit into plastics that are decomposable or finding polymer-loving bacterias. Innovation initiatives got rid of phosphates and CFCs – that at one time threatened our planet (its rivers and the ozone layer). There must be a better plastic or a better bacteria out there, if we can make it or find it.