They both release and attract toxic chemicals, and appear everywhere from human placentas to chasms thirty-six thousand feet beneath the sea. Will we ever be rid of them?
In 1863, when much of the United States was anguishing over the Civil War, an entrepreneur named Michael Phelan was fretting about billiard balls. At the time, the balls were made of ivory, preferably obtained from elephants from Ceylon—now Sri Lanka—whose tusks were thought to possess just the right density. Phelan, who owned a billiard hall and co-owned a billiard-table-manufacturing business, also wrote books about billiards and was a champion billiards player. Owing in good part to his efforts, the game had grown so popular that tusks from Ceylon—and, indeed, elephants more generally—were becoming scarce. He and a partner offered a ten-thousand-dollar reward to anyone who could come up with an ivory substitute.
A young printer from Albany, John Wesley Hyatt, learned about the offer and set to tinkering. In 1865, he patented a ball with a wooden core encased in ivory dust and shellac. Players were unimpressed. Next, Hyatt experimented with nitrocellulose, a material made by combining cotton or wood pulp with a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids. He found that a certain type of nitrocellulose, when heated with camphor, yielded a shiny, tough material that could be molded into practically any shape. Hyatt’s brother and business partner dubbed the substance “celluloid.” The resulting balls were more popular with players, although, as Hyatt conceded, they, too, had their drawbacks. Nitrocellulose, also known as guncotton, is highly flammable. Two celluloid balls knocking together with sufficient force could set off a small explosion. A saloon owner in Colorado reported to Hyatt that, when this happened, “instantly every man in the room pulled a gun.
It’s not clear that the Hyatt brothers ever collected from Phelan, but the invention proved to be its own reward. From celluloid billiard balls, the pair branched out into celluloid dentures, combs, brush handles, piano keys, and knickknacks. They touted the new material as a substitute not just for ivory but also for tortoiseshell and jewelry-grade coral. These, too, were running out, owing to slaughter and plunder. Celluloid, one of the Hyatts’ advertising pamphlets promised, would “give the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts.”
Hyatt’s invention, often described as the world’s first commercially produced plastic, was followed a few decades later by Bakelite. Bakelite was followed by polyvinyl chloride, which was, in turn, followed by polyethylene, low-density polyethylene, polyester, polypropylene, Styrofoam, Plexiglas, Mylar, Teflon, polyethylene terephthalate (familiarly known as pet)—the list goes on and on. And on. Annual global production of plastic currently runs to more than eight hundred billion pounds. What was a problem of scarcity is now a problem of superabundance.
In the form of empty water bottles, used shopping bags, and tattered snack packages, plastic waste turns up pretty much everywhere today. It has been found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, thirty-six thousand feet below sea level. It litters the beaches of Svalbard and the shores of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, in the Indian Ocean, most of which are uninhabited. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of floating debris that stretches across six hundred thousand square miles between California and Hawaii, is thought to contain some 1.8 trillion plastic shards. Among the many creatures being done in by all this junk are corals, tortoises, and elephants—in particular, the elephants of Sri Lanka. In recent years, twenty of them have died after ingesting plastic at a landfill near the village of Pallakkadu.
How worried should we be about what’s become known as “the plastic pollution crisis”? And what can be done about it? These questions lie at the heart of several recent books that take up what one author calls “the plastic trap…”