For reasons that I'll never fully understand my children are obsessed with Crocs. You know, the plastic slippers that just a few years ago seemed like they were the butt of every joke. Nowadays, they're the big fad.
Chris Cillizza's Kid
They are so comfortable. They're easy to run in. You can get them in any style you want. They have fun jibbitz that you can put wherever, they're just the best.
Why would anyone want to wear plastic shoes? I've wondered more than a few hundred times, but as it turns out, my shoes are made of plastic too. Even the nice leather ones I wear to work have plastic in their souls. In fact, most of my clothes are plastic. Most of the stuff in my house is plastic too. Plastic isn't something I think about a whole lot. When I do, I usually just think of that scene from The Graduate.
Clip from The Graduate
I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.
But what would our world look like without plastic?
I'm Chris Cillizza. And you're listening to Downside Up a podcast from CNN that searches for answers to some of the world's big "what if" questions. This week we're asking, what would our world look like if we never invented plastic? And what would a future without this personal material look like? So join us as we turn just about everything in our lives Downside Up.
If we're going to imagine a world without plastics, it'd help to understand what plastics are. It's actually a catch all term for a variety of synthetic products.
Actually, the word means the quality of the material, which is that it's easy to form, it's easy to mold. It can take a bunch of different shapes. Another word for plastic is polymer. That's a more scientific term. And basically what it means is just long chains of molecules, molecules that string together in chains, which is what makes plastic easy to form.
That's Allison Cobb, author of "Plastic: An Autobiography," a book about all the ways that plastic has reshaped our world. What we think of as plastics are these manmade materials that have really only been around for a relatively short period of our history.
So plastic made by people is really new. It's only existed for the last 150 years or so, and the search for plastic started to try to replace specifically ivory that comes from elephant tusks and rhino horns and things like billiard balls. Because it was hard to get ivory, it was already scarce.
Plastics were an American invention. But it didn't take long for them to spread worldwide. And these days, most plastic is made from a complicated process involving oil and gas.
Plastic comes from fossil fuels, just like the stuff that goes in our cars. So oil and gas comes out of the ground and it gets heated up. What's called distilled, so separated into different kinds of chemicals. Some of those chemicals are the basics for plastic. Those molecules get heated up again. It's called cracking, which I think is a great term, just breaking apart, literally cracking apart those molecules using heat. And then what happens is they're compressed with a lot of pressure, like multiple Earth atmospheres of pressure, thrust those molecules together and force them into these long chains. And that's how we end up with different kinds of plastic.
So how did we get from a replacement for ivory to where we are today, where it feels like plastic is, if not ubiquitous, damn close to ubiquitous and so much of what we do. When did it become so common to be put in everything?
I'm looking at you and seeing your microphone and your headphones and my own computer. Plastic is so everywhere in our lives and that is really a result of only, say, since World War II. As the war was happening, metal was scarce. It was hard to get things like rubber, which comes from Brazil, because markets were disrupted and the plastics industry, which was pretty new, actually did kind of a marketing campaign. The Society for the Plastics Industry, which was the trade group, formed this defense committee and lobbied Washington for federal funds to develop new materials. That's where nylon came from. Pretty much all the plastics we know today. Polyethylene, which is the most common plastic on the planet. It's in your water bottle. It's probably in your microphone.
The invention of nylon and polyethylene actually predated the war, but that is when mass production in the United States really started to ramp up. And once you built all those factories building all that plastic, it's hard to shut down production after the war ends.
After World War II, there was a ton of plastic manufacturing capacity and a market needed for all of that output. So the industry started to really create products aimed at you and me and individuals, and that was very purposeful. And in fact it was purposeful to have people throw it out because the plastics industry realized quickly that a product that lasts forever does not have a good profit.
If you didn't catch all of that. Basically it goes like this. Plastic companies designed their products to be used once or twice and then thrown away. If they were going to stay in business long term, they needed to train people that their products were disposable. That was a huge turning point. In the second half of the 20th century. You start seeing a lot of single use plastics in things like plastic shopping bags, coke bottles, fast food wrappers. But I also want to remind you that plastic revolutionized industries like health care and transportation in very good ways.
Plastic has definitely made lives better in a lot of ways. Think about the plastic tubes in a respirator. Think about a blood bag. Think about tiny I.V. tubes for, say, a premature baby. Plastics have transformed the medical industry. Think about plastic artificial limbs. So there are incredible important applications for plastic. In other ways we might not necessarily think about plastic is better for the environment. Plastic makes airplanes lighter, so they burn less fuel and send out less climate pollution. Water delivery systems in the developing world are plastic. It's an important substance for sure.
It's funny. No one ever thinks about plastic playing a positive role in the environment, but we also use plastic to make our cars lighter, safer and more efficient than they'd be if they were just metal. Heck, did you know that even our car tires are partially made out of plastic now, not just rubber? We also use plastic in protective gear for firefighters. Not to mention the rest of our clothes.
Most of our clothes are made of plastic now, and even if it looks and feels incredibly soft like fleece. And that seems like a natural substance that might come from something like a sheep. It comes right from oil and gas originally. And that soft, fleecy sweater, even my shirt, it looks like a cotton t shirt. It's actually some kind of plastic. And your t shirt looks cotton, too, but it probably has some parts that are plastic in it.
Forget cotton, it turns out plastic is the fabric of our lives. But one unfortunate side effect of everything being made of plastic is that we're constantly shedding little microplastics into the world. Tiny particles tear off of our clothing in the washer and dryer or fray off of our tires into the air, and they just spread. One thing to know about plastic is that it lasts forever because it's man made, there's virtually nothing in nature that breaks it down. So all the plastic that we've ever made is just taking up space on the planet or in our bodies.
This can be pretty disturbing. There's been a lot of science in the last, say, seven years, kind of looking at this problem. And scientists actually who were taking samples of dirt from national parks in the US to look for other things like wildfire residue, were surprised to find that every sample of dirt they took had tiny plastic particles. We think of national parks as being very pristine places. So since then, scientists have found tiny plastic particles everywhere on Earth, in the Arctic where there really aren't people, these tiny particles are being carried all over the Earth, and there's been an estimate that people eat and breathe as much as a credit cards weight of plastic every week.
Oh, my gosh. It's like eating a credit card.
It's like eating a credit card.
Golly. I'm no doctor.. Sorry, mom, but that can't be beneficial to our health.
The science is also very new on what, if any, health impacts there might be from that. It is clear in some animal studies that that leads to an immune response because like anything our bodies see, that is foreign substances and immune responses lead to inflammation. And you've probably heard the science that inflammation is great for your heart or your lungs. So while the science is still very new, there are some health consequences and there are many more clear health consequences of some of the chemicals that are added to plastic.
What chemicals are added and why?
I'll tell you about some of the most common. So as we said, plastic has very different qualities from the hard computer case to the squeezy ketchup bottle. There's a chemical called phthalates that makes that plastics soft and squeezable. And phthalates are everywhere. Phthalates have been shown to mess with our hormone system, basically, and even in very tiny amounts. And that affects how we grow and develop and leads to developmental problems, reproductive problems, things like, can I say this, lower sperm counts. We do know some of the science around those additives, like the phthalates I mentioned earlier.
Phthalates into our bodies, through our drinking water. And that's just one of more than 10,000 different chemicals that researchers have identified are added to plastic. Some are added for color. Others might make plastics more flexible or more resistant to sunlight. These qualities make plastic more useful for our everyday life. But those chemicals may wind up in our bodies or in the ocean.
I kind of doubted that the problem was as simple as littering or we need to recycle. And I really wanted to dove in and understand how is there plastic getting into the middle of the Pacific Ocean and creating what seemed to be this unreal place?
You may have heard of the giant island of plastic debris floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Well, Erica Cirino has actually sailed through that island. Erica is the author of "Thicker Than Water," and she says there's more to the Plastic Island story than we think. And I won't sugarcoat this. This part of the story is pretty depressing.
The media has portrayed what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or what we like to call the eastern North Pacific Gyre in kind of more geographic or scientific language. But this kind of mythical place that's filled with the Earth's plastic and other trash floating in the Pacific Ocean. There have been reports that it's twice the size of Texas, that it's this floating island of garbage. So I went there and it was absolutely nothing like I thought it would be. It really seemed like this clean, blue sea, beautiful place, actually. And then all of a sudden, there would be streams of trash, various types of plastic, just random items like light bulbs, shampoo bottles and pieces of fishing gear just kind of streamed past in ocean currents. And then it would be clean blue sea again as the ocean currents were diverting away from the ship. And then we looked very closely at the water, and I was with a group of microplastic researchers. They went to the sea to really understand that problem and to look into the ocean and just see all these little pieces of what you would think maybe it looks like confetti or sand, maybe sand grains is all plastic. They went 200 meters down. And when we drove down and really understood what was going on, we realized, okay, this problem is much, much bigger and more dire than we've imagined if the oceans are filling with these tiny pieces of plastic.
We think of it as an island of garbage that maybe we could just clean up. But really, we're turning the ocean into a plastic stew.
The garbage patch itself stretches really between the coasts of California and Asia. There's like two smaller garbage patches within a large Pacific garbage patch, and these are just driven by ocean currents. So because these currents are just naturally churning and swirling in very strong ways, they're also gathering plastic and other trash that was not in the environment before people introduced it.
And remember that plastic is something we created. So it's unclear whether other species will be able to evolve to live in an environment completely coated in a layer of microplastic.
You're going to be seeing probably the most adaptable creatures like bacteria's being able to adapt, but we see the crazy effects of plastic and quite literally, because listen to this: on beaches, there's microplastic covering beaches and the plastic hits the sand higher than normal sand temperatures that like normal natural rock and silicates would give off. And so this plastic is hitting the beaches. So when sea turtles lay their eggs, it's a higher heat. And when the temperature of sand is higher, sea turtle eggs tend to be feminized. So there are some sea turtle populations that are almost completely female and are at risk of going extinct because of plastics. And that's just one small effect of what plastics can do. And that's obviously not adapting unless they have some kind of plan for female turtles to take over the world.
And a lot of this pollution is just because single use plastic is cheaper to create from scratch than it is to recycle. And a lot of the world's plastic is single use more than a third- a third of all plastic goes into packaging. Here's Alison Cobb again.
And that is designed to be used once and then thrown away. And it is the largest single component of plastic production and unsurprisingly, the largest component of our plastic waste. We know that despite the plastic industry's PR blitz around the importance of recycling and the viability of recycling, only about 9% of plastic gets recycled, that the rest is thrown away. And even the 9% that gets recycled, it's a rough road until it actually gets there. Recycling is not a high tech sort of clean factory process. What happens is our mixed plastic recycling gets baled up and put on ships and shipped to countries where, frankly, there are not a lot of labor or environmental laws and individual people in places like Laos and Ethiopia and Vietnam pick through that rubbish, select out the stuff that can actually be affordably recycled, which is like your polyethylene water bottle and the rest, unfortunately, because those countries do not have good waste, management systems ends up likely in the ocean.
So this is our dilemma. Things aren't so simple that we can say a world without plastic would be cleaner and healthier. As you just heard, there's no denying the super harmful impacts of plastics on our air, water and land. It's ironic because plastics were originally invented to replace things like ivory that should have been better for the environment. And some plastic has improved a lot of our lives, too, especially when it comes to things like health care. After the break, we'll look at two questions. What would a world look like if we had never invented plastics? And what would our world look like if we could reuse plastics again instead of throwing them out after one use?
Welcome back. I'm Chris Cillizza and today on Downside Up, we're looking at what our world would be like without plastic. There are, of course, the obvious things we might not have our computers and TVs which rely on plastic parts we may not have ever invented film which relied on celluloid. That's also plastic. And a world without our computers, TV and movies as we know them would be, well, a lot less fun. But author Allison Cobb says plastics are so embedded in American culture that without them, we wouldn't be who we are today.
One thing that happened with the rise of plastics after World War II is that as the industry was looking for uses for plastic ways to sell this material they had so much of also created in that was something called the consumer, which is the person who is targeted by the advertising industry, the advertising industry really rose along with the plastic industry, convincing us that we're lacking things and we need to buy something to fix what we're lacking and that we should be able to use something and instantly throw it away and get a new thing. So I think without plastic, which really enables our throwaway culture, maybe we wouldn't be consumers in the same way we wouldn't be able to easily and quickly order something like a new set of Tupperware and use that for a while. Once it cracks, throw it out and get some new ones.
Even the Grinch, played here by Jim Carrey, has something to say about throwaway culture.
Clip from The Grinch
You want to know what happens to your gifts? They all come to me in your garbage. You see what I'm saying? In your garbage. Oh, I want golf clubs. I want diamonds, I want a pony so I can ride it twice, get bored of it and sell it to make glue.
In a world without plastics, would we hold onto our possessions longer instead of tossing them aside? According to Erica Cirino, who went through that crazy, massive Island of Misfit Plastics, the answer to this question is yes. She's seen that countries who use less plastic are more likely to reuse things. And isn't that a good thing?
Some parts of the world going to places like Antigua or going to parts of Southeast Asia, learning from folks like, oh, well, you would bring a tea towel to the baker and you would wrap your bread in your tea towel and you'd walk home. Or things like having a milkman or someone who brought soda to your house in a bottle. Things were wrapped in banana leaves, for example, in Thailand for a long time. And that's benign if you toss it in the woods, but not so with plastic.
Those are interesting examples of small everyday uses. But could anything have replaced the widespread use of plastic? Maybe not, says Allison Cobb.
Well, nothing was doing the job of plastic in phones and computers before because they didn't exist, right? So if we didn't have plastic per say, maybe another material would have been innovated. But not that one. Glass and metal and paper were really doing the job of what plastic does. And a lot of things we think about, like our food, our food would not be wrapped in plastic. And for that reason it probably wouldn't be able to travel as far. I think our global supply chains would be shorter and we might eat more local food and more food in the seasons where it's grown so that we might not be eating like mangoes year round.
Just because the ability to preserve them would be significantly diminished.
And ship them. Correct, correct.
And I do love a good mango.
It's crazy just how much the introduction of plastic accelerated global trade or even your local commute. There's actually not enough rubber in the world to keep up with the amount of cars that are being manufactured. So without plastic, we'd have a lot fewer cars. But hey, if you listen to our episode about cars and cities, there are some people who think that wouldn't be such a bad thing. Plastic as a whole would be very, very hard to replace.
Really, there are so many critical applications for plastic, as we talked about in the medical industry and cars and airplanes and our phones and computers. And it's really that piece, I think is the single use plastics, that is the biggest component of plastic. It goes into packaging. And when I say packaging, I mean take out containers and also your water bottle and your Coke bottle. And those are really what we call convenience items like none of our well-being, our life is dependent on those convenience items. And so those are much more feasible to phase out. And we've already done it. We've already seen it happen with a lot of us remembering to bring our cloth shopping bag to the grocery store. We would have maybe light stainless steel takeaway containers when we go to get food. We just wouldn't have the plastic one and ones that we do more reuse. So I bring my reusable cup when I go to the coffee shop. It's not that hard to do.
And for a lot of single use plastics, there are some alternatives that come direct from nature, even if they may sound a little bit strange. Here's Erika Cirino again.
When we really examined single use plastics, there are so many cases where either the replacement or the elimination is such a beneficial thing. And there will be a lot of people who maybe want the choice of plastic. And maybe just to understand that right now there are huge plethora of choices coming to the market. For example, different materials like mushrooms and seaweeds and really tapping into nontoxic plant-based solutions.
Explain to me how mushroom and seaweed can replace single use plastics.
So mushrooms or mycelium is this kind of spongy material that instead of, say, styrofoam would be a great packaging material. So if you had bottles of wine, for example, and you wanted to ship them to a friend across the country, you could say, I want this mushroom packaging and it's foamy, squishy material and it will completely biodegrade. It's mushrooms. It's not toxic. It doesn't have any kind of additives in it. And we're designing things. So they could either be they planted in your garden or they're going to be able to be reused again. So it's never this toxic end result. It would always be useful and it's end use. That's the world we would envision.
Seaweed is a really interesting material because it can be made into films. So chemically it's very easy to jell or like turn into something that, for example, could resemble plastic or maybe act like a plastic bottle or bag, but not last forever.
And as we look into the future, in our reality, this is the type of plastic use that experts are talking about phasing out. We aren't going to be replacing the plastic in our airplanes or hospitals anytime soon, but a lot of the plastic used for packing is already starting to be phased out, says Winnie Lau, who works on the reduction of plastic for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Part of it is individuals making choices like you and me in our daily lives, choosing products that are not single use, choosing products that don't have plastic, for example. But it's more than us, right? Because we also make choices based on what's available to us. So we need the companies to be part of the solution, them providing options for us to make the choices we would like to make, and also designing products that either have less plastic or no plastic. But companies also, you know, they like to make profit. So we also need governments to play a role to kind of put in place policies and level the playing field so that everyone's playing by the same rules. So that Company A, doesn't think I need to sell plastic in order to make a buck and Company B is like, well, if A is doing that, I also need to do it. So governments have a role to play as well.
And some countries have already announced bans for single use plastic. The United Kingdom has banned plastic cutlery, straws, drink stirrers, plates and styrofoam containers, as well as beauty products that contain microbeads. Nearly 100 countries have banned plastic grocery bags. You've seen that happen in cities across the United States, too, although some states have passed laws to block those local bans. But if we're really all breathing in a credit cards worth of plastic a week, why are companies so hesitant to move away from plastic? Does it just boil down to cost?
That's certainly a big reason. Plastic is one of the cheaper materials out there in the world today. For example, we had spoken with one manufacturer of food. They basically said it's much faster for their machineries to use plastic as a packaging than, you know, paper or other things so they can make things faster is cheaper for them overall. Plastic itself is a very cheap material. Paper is more expensive. We actually looked at this in our research and it costs more to use paper wrapping than plastic wrapping. The other part, and companies might say this, that people are used to things being a certain way so if something looks different, they may be like "What is this? I don't know if I want to buy that." So costs is a big part of it. Companies operations is a part of it. And then consumers and what we accept is another part of it.
As we move away from single use plastic, we may also be moving away from the throwaway culture that grew up alongside it.
So there are companies out there trying to kind of merge the two like takeaway culture, but without the throwaway culture where companies would be in the city and restaurants would sign up to a program where they all share in this reusable container program. So the company is responsible for all the reusable containers. They distribute it to the restaurants. The restaurants sell the takeaway food to consumers in those takeaway containers, but then they can return it back to the restaurants in the network. And then the company that's responsible for the containers will go and collect all the containers, wash them so that they can be reused again by the restaurants within the network. So that's a blend. I mean, that's human ingenuity. It's not set in stone.
Winnie's right. Human ingenuity is not set in stone. And in some ways, plastic was like a video game cheat code. It was so cheap to make and so easy to use that we could use it as a solution for, well, everything. It shaped our modern world so much that it's hard to imagine the alternative. But people are naturally curious and adaptive, and so we will surely find something else if we keep looking, especially when it comes to imagining a world without single use plastics.
We have the majority of the technical policy solutions on hand to cut 80% of the plastic pollution that's projected to go into the environment by 2040. So in 18 years or so, if governments, companies decide to put in place these solutions today, we could get there 80%. That's pretty phenomenal, if you think about it. It's a problem that we created in 50, 60 years and we can solve it in about 20 years. But what it does take is everyone, every company, every government, every individual putting in the effort to make it happen. And no one can sit on the sidelines. No one can say someone else will do it. If we all actually band together, come together and put in place the solutions, we can solve this within a generation.
I'll be frank. I like all the luxuries that a world with plastic has given us. I like my car. I like my computer. I like that your phone can play my podcast like that a lot. But I don't like breathing in microplastics every day, and I don't like that our oceans are filling up with plastic. So if we can somehow find the best of both of those worlds, that feels like a future everyone could buy into.
And now it's time for Allison Cobb to join us for a little plastics trivia. Question one Leo Baekeland is called the father of the plastics industry for the development of the first plastic made from synthetic components in 1907. What name was appropriately given to his invention?
You're killing me, one for one. Bakelite was one of the earliest examples of mass produced plastics. Bakelite was everywhere. It was used to make dishes, toys, jewelry, and because plastic lasts forever, a lot of those early Bakelite items are now big collector's items today. Okay. Question number two This country was the first in the world to ban single use plastic bags, doing so in 2002. Since then, at least 90 countries have passed some form of plastic bag ban. Name the country to do it first.
Wow. I'm going to guess that it was the Marshall Islands.
Good guess, though. The Marshall Islands are actually one of the other 90 countries that have banned plastic bags. They just weren't the first. Don't worry, I didn't get that one right either. Okay, now we're coming more into my wheelhouse. This children's toy company was the first to convert its entire product line to plastic, doing so in the 1940s, though it was a small company then, today it has become one of the best recognized children's toy brands. Name that company.
Two correct. Okay. Number four, here we go. In this 2004 comedy, the popular kids, including Rachel McAdams and Lindsay Lohan, are called The Plastics. Name the movie written by Tina Fey and later adapted into a Broadway musical.
Clip from Mean Girls
Who are the Plastics? They're teen royalty. If North Shore was US Weekly, they would always be on the cover. Beware of the plastics.
Correct. Three for four. Last one. This was kind of hard, I think Plastic Beach is the name of the third album by what, popular electronic and hip hop band? The band is considered a virtual band because the members appear as cartoons and holograms.
Okay, now I'm going to reveal that I have no contemporary cultural knowledge. I have no idea.
Okay, well, I'm going to have to check those out, I'm writing it down.
So what would our world look like without plastic? It would look completely different. Our hospitals might be stuck in the 19th century. We might never have invented phones or televisions. On the other hand, our oceans might be a lot cleaner and people and animals might be healthier. It's hard to reinvent the past, but we do have the chance to define our future. And people like our guest today, Allison Cobb, Erica Cirino and Winnie Lau are helping us imagine what our world and our culture might look like as we move away from a plastic based society. What about you? Are there ways you produce plastic used in your daily life? Let me know by tweeting me at Chris C-I-L-L-I-Z-Z-A. And if you're liking our show, please share it with your friends and make sure you rate review and subscribe as well.
Next time on Downside Up: What if California seceded from the United States?
This would be a divorce. It could be a very expensive divorce.
Downside Up is hosted by me, Chris Cillizza. It's a production of CNN in collaboration with Pod People at CNN. And our producer is Lori Galarreta, and our executive producer is Abbie Fentress Swanson. Alexander McCall leads audience strategy for the show. Tameeka Ballance-Kolasny is our production manager and Jamus Andrest and Nichole Pesaru designed our artwork.
The team from Pod People includes Rachael Kang, Matt Sav, Amy Machado, John Hammontree, Madison Lusby, Regina de Heer and Morgane Fouse.
Theme and original music composed by Casey Holford. Additional music came from epidemic sound.
Special thanks to Lindsay Abrams, Fuzz Hogan, Drew Shankman, Lisa Namerow, John Dianora, Katie Hinman, Robert Mathers and Sarina Singh.