Plastics were originally invented to save animals.
Let that fact sink in for a moment because it’s sadly ironic. Today, plastic plays a large part in killing them.
It seems to have all started in 1867, when The New York Times published an article that warned that elephants were in grave danger of being “numbered with extinct species” because of humans’ unquenchable appetite for ivory. At the time, ivory was used to make a multitude of items, including buttonhooks, boxes, brush handles and piano keys. One of the biggest uses was for making billiard balls.
The game of billiards had become extremely popular with the upper classes in Europe and in the United States. Every stately mansion had a billiards table; and by the mid-1800s, one million pounds of ivory were being consumed annually. There was a growing concern that there would soon be no elephants left to keep the game tables stocked with balls. The New York Times reported that in Ceylon, where the ivory that made the best billiard balls was said to be sourced, “upon the reward of a few shillings per head being offered by the authorities, 3,500 [elephants] were dispatched in less than three years by the natives. Long before the elephants are no more and the mammoths used up,” The Times hoped, “an adequate substitute may [be] found.”
Ivory wasn’t the only natural manufacturing material that was starting to run low. The hawksbill turtle, the involuntary supplier of the shell used to fashion combs, was becoming scarcer. Cattle horn, another natural plastic that had been used by American combmakers since before the Revolutionary War, was also becoming less available as ranchers stopped dehorning their cattle.
Chemists needed to look for a synthetic alternative before nature’s storehouse ran out. They found it in 1907, when Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, was invented. By the mid-20th century, the plastics boom was on.
Today, a lot of that plastic is ending up in our oceans, and the material that was invented to save animals is now dooming them.
But there are things that we can do to remedy the problem. Watch the three short videos below. In the first, titled How Much Plastic Is in the Ocean and produced by PBS Digital Studios, you’ll hear a little bit about the history of plastics and the “lonely, plastic navy”—28,800 bath toys—that was sent adrift into the Pacific Ocean 1992. It will also acquaint you with the six rules of using plastic: reduce, reuse, recycle, rethink, repair and refuse.
The following two videos bring a lot of fun to a serious environmental matter. The first is Lonely Whale’s #StopSucking public service announcement (PSA). And, during the second, if watching a giant octopus tentacle slap away straws from the faces of physicist Neil Degrasse Tyson and other famous people doesn’t make you smile, nothing will.
Years ago, while visiting the isles of the Scottish Highlands, a seasoned boat captain said to me, “Sometimes, when you hit the ocean, she hits you back.”
And, I’d add, with good reason.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,