Member only
Episode
58

Plastic

May 29, 2020
Geography
-
20
minutes
Economics
Environment
Global warming
China

It has revolutionised our lives, made cars lighter, food fresher, and water safer.

But at what cost?

In this episode we take a look at the history of plastic, and ask ourselves what comes next.

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login
Subtitles will start when you press 'play'
You need to subscribe for the full subtitles
Already a member? Login
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdf
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript only available after your trial

Transcript

[00:00:04] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can learn fascinating things about the world and listen to interesting stories while improving your English. 

[00:00:19] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about plastic. 

[00:00:26] It is one of the most important inventions of the past 200 years and has revolutionised food, medicine, transport, and is used for almost everything we do. 

[00:00:40] But as we all know, it is also causing big problems. 

[00:00:45] Filling up oceans, killing animals, and fish, and maybe even killing us.

[00:00:53] In today's episode, we will be talking about where plastic comes from, why it was so revolutionary, why so much of it ends up in the oceans, and what the future might hold for us and for our children and grandchildren.

[00:01:12] It's going to be quite an interesting one. 

[00:01:15] Before we get started though, If you are listening on your favourite podcast app, let me just remind you that you can find all of our episodes over on the website, which is Leonardo english.com. 

[00:01:28] If you haven't done so already, I'd recommend checking out becoming a member of Leonardo English. 

[00:01:34] Membership gives you all sorts of great stuff that will quickly help you improve your English, including access to all of the podcasts, transcripts, key vocabulary plus private member only sessions.

[00:01:49] We actually had the first one of those a couple of days ago, and it was a lot of fun. 

[00:01:54] So if you want to improve your English in a more interesting way, and you'd like to join a growing community of curious minds from all over the world, then the link to go to is Leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:02:11] Okay then, let's talk about plastic.

[00:02:16] Plastic is in many ways a fantastic invention. 

[00:02:21] Plastic bottles provide clean drinking water to hundreds of millions of people all over the world who wouldn't otherwise have access to clean water. 

[00:02:31] Plastic allows fresh food to last for longer, so there is at least the opportunity for less waste. 

[00:02:40] Plastic makes cars and aeroplanes lighter, so we use less fuel and pollute less.

[00:02:47] It has revolutionised medicine allowing for countless millions of lives to be saved that would otherwise not have been. 

[00:02:57] And when it was first invented, it even saved animals. 

[00:03:03] Now this might sound like a strange thing to hear nowadays when all we hear about is fish getting trapped in plastic bags, but when plastic was invented, it was actually partly created as a way to save animals.

[00:03:24] It's quite a cool story. 

[00:03:26] So in the mid 19th century, things like piano keys, combs for your hair and billiard balls, pool balls, they were all often made out of ivory from elephants' tusks

[00:03:43] Obviously that wasn't sustainable. 

[00:03:46] Thousands of elephants were being killed every year, just so people could play the piano, play billiards, or comb their hair. 

[00:03:57] And of course, it meant that all of these things were very expensive because ivory was scarce,there wasn't much of it, so the raw materials were expensive. 

[00:04:09] So a billiards company in New York city had an idea. 

[00:04:16] They offered a $10,000 prize, which would be about $350,000 in today's money, they offered this prize for anyone who could invent an alternative. 

[00:04:31] They were, of course, not just doing this out of the goodness of their own heart - if they could make billiard balls cheaper than they could sell more of them. 

[00:04:44] And a man called John Wesley Hyatt, who was an amateur inventor, not even a professional chemist, he decided that he wanted to give it a try. 

[00:04:57] After years of trial and error, he invented something that he called 'celluloid', which was the first type of plastic.

[00:05:08] It was actually made out of cellulose, which is the polymer found in plants. 

[00:05:15] So, strangely enough, the first plastic was actually plant-based.

[00:05:21] However, it wasn't until the mid 20th century that plastic would actually start to really rise in popularity. 

[00:05:32] Cheap hydrocarbons, cheap petrol, had meant that the process to make plastic had become a lot cheaper and quicker, and the economic boom of the post-war years meant that, especially in the United States and Europe, consumers were ready for a world filled with plastic. 

[00:05:55] People had more money and the price for lots of goods had decreased.

[00:06:00] Of course, this meant a big jump in consumption, a big jump in people buying stuff. 

[00:06:09] This new revolutionary plastic was often advertised as to be thrown away as soon as it was used.

[00:06:20] There was a famous front cover of Life magazine in the US in 1955 with the headline ' Throw away living' and a photo of a happy family just throwing plastic plates, cups, knives, and spoons, throwing them up in the air.

[00:06:41] Instead of doing the washing up and cleaning, Americans could now just use things once, then throw them away, never to have to worry about cleaning up because it was so cheap just to buy more. 

[00:07:00] Well, as we all know, 65 years after that magazine cover, it wasn't quite so simple. 

[00:07:09] You can throw away as much plastic as you like, but there are consequences and those consequences are quite serious. 

[00:07:19] The qualities that make plastic so fantastic that it is versatile and hard, these are exactly the same things that make it so hard to get rid of, so difficult to dispose of. 

[00:07:34] The estimates about how long plastic takes to biodegrade range from 450 years to never. 

[00:07:46] If Christopher Columbus in 1492, if he had been drinking bottled water on his way to the Americas and had thrown a plastic bottle over the side of the ship, into the sea, there is a chance that it would still be around today in some shape or form. 

[00:08:06] And those disposable nappies that most babies around the world are currently wearing? 

[00:08:13] When they are thrown away, when your little child needs a new nappy, that same nappy will probably still exist in the world in the 25th century.

[00:08:24] I know it's easy to just throw out statistics, but here are a few numbers just to remind you of what we are all dealing with. 

[00:08:35] Since 1950, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced, and of that 6.4 billion is no longer in use, it's now considered useless.

[00:08:50] So where is this 6.4 billion tonnes of plastic then? 

[00:08:55] Well, of the 6.4 billion, 79% is either in rubbish dumps or sitting somewhere in the natural world. 

[00:09:07] 12% has been burned and only 9% has been recycled. 

[00:09:15] And we are producing more and more plastic every year. 

[00:09:18] Each year we produce 300 million tonnes of plastic, which is about 38 kilos of plastic per person, every single year. 

[00:09:31] Around the world 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every single minute, so by the time you’ve finished listening to this podcast, about 20 million plastic bottles will have been bought. 

[00:09:48] And all of this plastic that is produced, half of it is designed to be used only once and then thrown away. 

[00:09:58] But, you might ask, what actually is the problem with this?

[00:10:02] Is it just because there is plastic flowing into the oceans? 

[00:10:07] It's polluting the rivers and beaches and killing some dolphins and tuna? 

[00:10:13] The reality is that it is doing all of that, but there is a lot about what happens to plastics when they get into the oceans that we don't properly understand yet. 

[00:10:26] We know that plastics do break up into smaller and smaller pieces becoming microplastics and then nanoplastics and they are consumed by fish and perhaps eventually, even humans. 

[00:10:43] What we do know is that we are ingesting a lot of microplastics without knowing it. 

[00:10:52] A study suggested that Americans eat or breathe in at least 74,000 microplastic particles every year, and another study suggested that this adds up to five grammes of plastic every single week, which is about the weight of a credit card.

[00:11:17] What we don't really know though is what this means. 

[00:11:22] We're pretty sure that it's not going to be good for us as plastics are formed of some harmful chemicals, but there haven't been any authoritative studies on what the long term impact of this will be. 

[00:11:38] So we know that we produce a lot of plastic, that it lasts for a long time, that hardly any of it is currently recycled, and that having plastic floating around the oceans is generally a bad idea for multiple reasons.

[00:11:57] But what can we actually do about it? 

[00:12:01] Well, some people might say that we just need to get better at recycling. 

[00:12:07] If we can recycle everything, then we can continue our love affair with plastic and benefit from its convenience while not blocking up our oceans with it. 

[00:12:20] Unfortunately though, new plastic is so cheap to make that it just doesn't really make much economic sense for companies to recycle right now, especially in the developing world where plastic is so ubiquitous, partly because of how cheap it is. 

[00:12:41] And a lot of plastic waste is actually just difficult to recycle. 

[00:12:46] The little packets of shampoo that are sold in places like Indonesia and the Philippines and then thrown away after being used, it would make no sense to recycle them and it would be very difficult to do so. 

[00:13:03] And even things like plastic bottles, the cost of collecting them, taking them to the recycling centre and then recycling them is in many cases quite a lot higher than just making a new bottle.

[00:13:20] This is not to say that recycling is bad, of course, but just to point out that there are some pretty significant issues with thinking that recycling is the complete solution. 

[00:13:32] There is of course an element of behaviour change that can help, partly driven by us consumers and partly driven by governments.

[00:13:44] Things like banning the use of plastic bags, which has been done by several African countries, to consumer action campaigns to refuse single use plastics, like plastic straws for drinks. 

[00:13:59] However, these campaigns are normally a bit of a luxury and tend to happen in more developed, wealthier countries, mainly in Europe and North America. 

[00:14:14] And even though we still have a plastic problem in these countries, it is dwarfed by the plastic problem in several Asian countries. 

[00:14:26] In fact, about half of all the world's plastic waste that ends up in the oceans comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. 

[00:14:43] So even if in Europe and North America, we were able to recycle a hundred percent of our plastic waste, it would only have a small impact on plastic waste globally.

[00:14:58] Of course, refusing a plastic straw at a bar or restaurant is a good thing if you don't need it, but it has an absolutely tiny impact on the global plastic problem.

[00:15:13] There are, as you may have read about, some initiatives that are quite encouraging in terms of moving away from plastic. 

[00:15:22] Carlsberg and Coca-Cola in the Netherlands are trialing plant-based bottles that will degrade within one year, which will mean that consumers can still benefit from the convenience of plastic without the long term environmental impact.

[00:15:43] And in terms of consumer behaviour, there is a lot more awareness of the impact of single use plastic on the environment, and people are making more informed choices and businesses are responding to that with trying to provide more socially responsible products. 

[00:16:03] Coca-Cola, for example, has pledged that it will collect and recycle the equivalent of all of its plastic packaging, which is 128 billion bottles a year, and it has pledged that it will do that by the year 2030. 

[00:16:22] So that is, of course, a positive development. 

[00:16:26] But there is one pretty interesting idea that has been proposed as a solution. 

[00:16:32] And you may think that it would be some revolutionary new technology or a completely new type of plastic, but it's actually a lot simpler than that.

[00:16:43] It's not sexy, not revolutionary, and you might think, well, it's just obvious. 

[00:16:50] It's for there to be some sort of global tax on plastic that will go directly back into rubbish collection services in the countries where most of the plastic pollution happens. 

[00:17:05] The problem with lots of the countries that are most responsible for the world's plastic pollution is just that they have very bad rubbish collection and so most rubbish, of which plastic is the main part, is just thrown ultimately into rivers from where it makes its way into the oceans.

[00:17:28] Indeed, 90% of all of the plastic in the world's oceans comes from just 10 rivers, 8 of which are in Asia and two are in Africa. 

[00:17:42] If there were better rubbish collection in these countries, if rubbish was actually collected regularly and disposed of safely, then that would stop it getting into the oceans in the first place.

[00:17:58] Yes, it wouldn't solve the problem of the plastic that's already in the oceans and it wouldn't solve our addiction to cheap plastic, but it would mean that it was safely disposed of and we could stop the flood of plastic going into the oceans every year, 8 million tonnes at the last estimate. 

[00:18:20] The solution, or at least a solution, is sometimes a lot more obvious than you might think. 

[00:18:29] Okay then, I hope that this has been an interesting look into the world of plastic. 

[00:18:35] It is a product that has made our lives infinitely more convenient, but that convenience comes with a price. 

[00:18:45] While we don't fully understand what that price is, we're pretty sure it's one that's not worth paying.

[00:18:54] As always, I would love to know what you thought of the show. 

[00:18:58] You can email hi Hi@leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:19:03] As a final reminder, if you are looking for all of the bonus member only episodes plus transcripts, key vocabulary, member-only discussion sessions and more, then the place to go to is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:19:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:19:25] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:04] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can learn fascinating things about the world and listen to interesting stories while improving your English. 

[00:00:19] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about plastic. 

[00:00:26] It is one of the most important inventions of the past 200 years and has revolutionised food, medicine, transport, and is used for almost everything we do. 

[00:00:40] But as we all know, it is also causing big problems. 

[00:00:45] Filling up oceans, killing animals, and fish, and maybe even killing us.

[00:00:53] In today's episode, we will be talking about where plastic comes from, why it was so revolutionary, why so much of it ends up in the oceans, and what the future might hold for us and for our children and grandchildren.

[00:01:12] It's going to be quite an interesting one. 

[00:01:15] Before we get started though, If you are listening on your favourite podcast app, let me just remind you that you can find all of our episodes over on the website, which is Leonardo english.com. 

[00:01:28] If you haven't done so already, I'd recommend checking out becoming a member of Leonardo English. 

[00:01:34] Membership gives you all sorts of great stuff that will quickly help you improve your English, including access to all of the podcasts, transcripts, key vocabulary plus private member only sessions.

[00:01:49] We actually had the first one of those a couple of days ago, and it was a lot of fun. 

[00:01:54] So if you want to improve your English in a more interesting way, and you'd like to join a growing community of curious minds from all over the world, then the link to go to is Leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:02:11] Okay then, let's talk about plastic.

[00:02:16] Plastic is in many ways a fantastic invention. 

[00:02:21] Plastic bottles provide clean drinking water to hundreds of millions of people all over the world who wouldn't otherwise have access to clean water. 

[00:02:31] Plastic allows fresh food to last for longer, so there is at least the opportunity for less waste. 

[00:02:40] Plastic makes cars and aeroplanes lighter, so we use less fuel and pollute less.

[00:02:47] It has revolutionised medicine allowing for countless millions of lives to be saved that would otherwise not have been. 

[00:02:57] And when it was first invented, it even saved animals. 

[00:03:03] Now this might sound like a strange thing to hear nowadays when all we hear about is fish getting trapped in plastic bags, but when plastic was invented, it was actually partly created as a way to save animals.

[00:03:24] It's quite a cool story. 

[00:03:26] So in the mid 19th century, things like piano keys, combs for your hair and billiard balls, pool balls, they were all often made out of ivory from elephants' tusks

[00:03:43] Obviously that wasn't sustainable. 

[00:03:46] Thousands of elephants were being killed every year, just so people could play the piano, play billiards, or comb their hair. 

[00:03:57] And of course, it meant that all of these things were very expensive because ivory was scarce,there wasn't much of it, so the raw materials were expensive. 

[00:04:09] So a billiards company in New York city had an idea. 

[00:04:16] They offered a $10,000 prize, which would be about $350,000 in today's money, they offered this prize for anyone who could invent an alternative. 

[00:04:31] They were, of course, not just doing this out of the goodness of their own heart - if they could make billiard balls cheaper than they could sell more of them. 

[00:04:44] And a man called John Wesley Hyatt, who was an amateur inventor, not even a professional chemist, he decided that he wanted to give it a try. 

[00:04:57] After years of trial and error, he invented something that he called 'celluloid', which was the first type of plastic.

[00:05:08] It was actually made out of cellulose, which is the polymer found in plants. 

[00:05:15] So, strangely enough, the first plastic was actually plant-based.

[00:05:21] However, it wasn't until the mid 20th century that plastic would actually start to really rise in popularity. 

[00:05:32] Cheap hydrocarbons, cheap petrol, had meant that the process to make plastic had become a lot cheaper and quicker, and the economic boom of the post-war years meant that, especially in the United States and Europe, consumers were ready for a world filled with plastic. 

[00:05:55] People had more money and the price for lots of goods had decreased.

[00:06:00] Of course, this meant a big jump in consumption, a big jump in people buying stuff. 

[00:06:09] This new revolutionary plastic was often advertised as to be thrown away as soon as it was used.

[00:06:20] There was a famous front cover of Life magazine in the US in 1955 with the headline ' Throw away living' and a photo of a happy family just throwing plastic plates, cups, knives, and spoons, throwing them up in the air.

[00:06:41] Instead of doing the washing up and cleaning, Americans could now just use things once, then throw them away, never to have to worry about cleaning up because it was so cheap just to buy more. 

[00:07:00] Well, as we all know, 65 years after that magazine cover, it wasn't quite so simple. 

[00:07:09] You can throw away as much plastic as you like, but there are consequences and those consequences are quite serious. 

[00:07:19] The qualities that make plastic so fantastic that it is versatile and hard, these are exactly the same things that make it so hard to get rid of, so difficult to dispose of. 

[00:07:34] The estimates about how long plastic takes to biodegrade range from 450 years to never. 

[00:07:46] If Christopher Columbus in 1492, if he had been drinking bottled water on his way to the Americas and had thrown a plastic bottle over the side of the ship, into the sea, there is a chance that it would still be around today in some shape or form. 

[00:08:06] And those disposable nappies that most babies around the world are currently wearing? 

[00:08:13] When they are thrown away, when your little child needs a new nappy, that same nappy will probably still exist in the world in the 25th century.

[00:08:24] I know it's easy to just throw out statistics, but here are a few numbers just to remind you of what we are all dealing with. 

[00:08:35] Since 1950, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced, and of that 6.4 billion is no longer in use, it's now considered useless.

[00:08:50] So where is this 6.4 billion tonnes of plastic then? 

[00:08:55] Well, of the 6.4 billion, 79% is either in rubbish dumps or sitting somewhere in the natural world. 

[00:09:07] 12% has been burned and only 9% has been recycled. 

[00:09:15] And we are producing more and more plastic every year. 

[00:09:18] Each year we produce 300 million tonnes of plastic, which is about 38 kilos of plastic per person, every single year. 

[00:09:31] Around the world 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every single minute, so by the time you’ve finished listening to this podcast, about 20 million plastic bottles will have been bought. 

[00:09:48] And all of this plastic that is produced, half of it is designed to be used only once and then thrown away. 

[00:09:58] But, you might ask, what actually is the problem with this?

[00:10:02] Is it just because there is plastic flowing into the oceans? 

[00:10:07] It's polluting the rivers and beaches and killing some dolphins and tuna? 

[00:10:13] The reality is that it is doing all of that, but there is a lot about what happens to plastics when they get into the oceans that we don't properly understand yet. 

[00:10:26] We know that plastics do break up into smaller and smaller pieces becoming microplastics and then nanoplastics and they are consumed by fish and perhaps eventually, even humans. 

[00:10:43] What we do know is that we are ingesting a lot of microplastics without knowing it. 

[00:10:52] A study suggested that Americans eat or breathe in at least 74,000 microplastic particles every year, and another study suggested that this adds up to five grammes of plastic every single week, which is about the weight of a credit card.

[00:11:17] What we don't really know though is what this means. 

[00:11:22] We're pretty sure that it's not going to be good for us as plastics are formed of some harmful chemicals, but there haven't been any authoritative studies on what the long term impact of this will be. 

[00:11:38] So we know that we produce a lot of plastic, that it lasts for a long time, that hardly any of it is currently recycled, and that having plastic floating around the oceans is generally a bad idea for multiple reasons.

[00:11:57] But what can we actually do about it? 

[00:12:01] Well, some people might say that we just need to get better at recycling. 

[00:12:07] If we can recycle everything, then we can continue our love affair with plastic and benefit from its convenience while not blocking up our oceans with it. 

[00:12:20] Unfortunately though, new plastic is so cheap to make that it just doesn't really make much economic sense for companies to recycle right now, especially in the developing world where plastic is so ubiquitous, partly because of how cheap it is. 

[00:12:41] And a lot of plastic waste is actually just difficult to recycle. 

[00:12:46] The little packets of shampoo that are sold in places like Indonesia and the Philippines and then thrown away after being used, it would make no sense to recycle them and it would be very difficult to do so. 

[00:13:03] And even things like plastic bottles, the cost of collecting them, taking them to the recycling centre and then recycling them is in many cases quite a lot higher than just making a new bottle.

[00:13:20] This is not to say that recycling is bad, of course, but just to point out that there are some pretty significant issues with thinking that recycling is the complete solution. 

[00:13:32] There is of course an element of behaviour change that can help, partly driven by us consumers and partly driven by governments.

[00:13:44] Things like banning the use of plastic bags, which has been done by several African countries, to consumer action campaigns to refuse single use plastics, like plastic straws for drinks. 

[00:13:59] However, these campaigns are normally a bit of a luxury and tend to happen in more developed, wealthier countries, mainly in Europe and North America. 

[00:14:14] And even though we still have a plastic problem in these countries, it is dwarfed by the plastic problem in several Asian countries. 

[00:14:26] In fact, about half of all the world's plastic waste that ends up in the oceans comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. 

[00:14:43] So even if in Europe and North America, we were able to recycle a hundred percent of our plastic waste, it would only have a small impact on plastic waste globally.

[00:14:58] Of course, refusing a plastic straw at a bar or restaurant is a good thing if you don't need it, but it has an absolutely tiny impact on the global plastic problem.

[00:15:13] There are, as you may have read about, some initiatives that are quite encouraging in terms of moving away from plastic. 

[00:15:22] Carlsberg and Coca-Cola in the Netherlands are trialing plant-based bottles that will degrade within one year, which will mean that consumers can still benefit from the convenience of plastic without the long term environmental impact.

[00:15:43] And in terms of consumer behaviour, there is a lot more awareness of the impact of single use plastic on the environment, and people are making more informed choices and businesses are responding to that with trying to provide more socially responsible products. 

[00:16:03] Coca-Cola, for example, has pledged that it will collect and recycle the equivalent of all of its plastic packaging, which is 128 billion bottles a year, and it has pledged that it will do that by the year 2030. 

[00:16:22] So that is, of course, a positive development. 

[00:16:26] But there is one pretty interesting idea that has been proposed as a solution. 

[00:16:32] And you may think that it would be some revolutionary new technology or a completely new type of plastic, but it's actually a lot simpler than that.

[00:16:43] It's not sexy, not revolutionary, and you might think, well, it's just obvious. 

[00:16:50] It's for there to be some sort of global tax on plastic that will go directly back into rubbish collection services in the countries where most of the plastic pollution happens. 

[00:17:05] The problem with lots of the countries that are most responsible for the world's plastic pollution is just that they have very bad rubbish collection and so most rubbish, of which plastic is the main part, is just thrown ultimately into rivers from where it makes its way into the oceans.

[00:17:28] Indeed, 90% of all of the plastic in the world's oceans comes from just 10 rivers, 8 of which are in Asia and two are in Africa. 

[00:17:42] If there were better rubbish collection in these countries, if rubbish was actually collected regularly and disposed of safely, then that would stop it getting into the oceans in the first place.

[00:17:58] Yes, it wouldn't solve the problem of the plastic that's already in the oceans and it wouldn't solve our addiction to cheap plastic, but it would mean that it was safely disposed of and we could stop the flood of plastic going into the oceans every year, 8 million tonnes at the last estimate. 

[00:18:20] The solution, or at least a solution, is sometimes a lot more obvious than you might think. 

[00:18:29] Okay then, I hope that this has been an interesting look into the world of plastic. 

[00:18:35] It is a product that has made our lives infinitely more convenient, but that convenience comes with a price. 

[00:18:45] While we don't fully understand what that price is, we're pretty sure it's one that's not worth paying.

[00:18:54] As always, I would love to know what you thought of the show. 

[00:18:58] You can email hi Hi@leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:19:03] As a final reminder, if you are looking for all of the bonus member only episodes plus transcripts, key vocabulary, member-only discussion sessions and more, then the place to go to is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:19:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:19:25] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]


[00:00:04] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can learn fascinating things about the world and listen to interesting stories while improving your English. 

[00:00:19] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about plastic. 

[00:00:26] It is one of the most important inventions of the past 200 years and has revolutionised food, medicine, transport, and is used for almost everything we do. 

[00:00:40] But as we all know, it is also causing big problems. 

[00:00:45] Filling up oceans, killing animals, and fish, and maybe even killing us.

[00:00:53] In today's episode, we will be talking about where plastic comes from, why it was so revolutionary, why so much of it ends up in the oceans, and what the future might hold for us and for our children and grandchildren.

[00:01:12] It's going to be quite an interesting one. 

[00:01:15] Before we get started though, If you are listening on your favourite podcast app, let me just remind you that you can find all of our episodes over on the website, which is Leonardo english.com. 

[00:01:28] If you haven't done so already, I'd recommend checking out becoming a member of Leonardo English. 

[00:01:34] Membership gives you all sorts of great stuff that will quickly help you improve your English, including access to all of the podcasts, transcripts, key vocabulary plus private member only sessions.

[00:01:49] We actually had the first one of those a couple of days ago, and it was a lot of fun. 

[00:01:54] So if you want to improve your English in a more interesting way, and you'd like to join a growing community of curious minds from all over the world, then the link to go to is Leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:02:11] Okay then, let's talk about plastic.

[00:02:16] Plastic is in many ways a fantastic invention. 

[00:02:21] Plastic bottles provide clean drinking water to hundreds of millions of people all over the world who wouldn't otherwise have access to clean water. 

[00:02:31] Plastic allows fresh food to last for longer, so there is at least the opportunity for less waste. 

[00:02:40] Plastic makes cars and aeroplanes lighter, so we use less fuel and pollute less.

[00:02:47] It has revolutionised medicine allowing for countless millions of lives to be saved that would otherwise not have been. 

[00:02:57] And when it was first invented, it even saved animals. 

[00:03:03] Now this might sound like a strange thing to hear nowadays when all we hear about is fish getting trapped in plastic bags, but when plastic was invented, it was actually partly created as a way to save animals.

[00:03:24] It's quite a cool story. 

[00:03:26] So in the mid 19th century, things like piano keys, combs for your hair and billiard balls, pool balls, they were all often made out of ivory from elephants' tusks

[00:03:43] Obviously that wasn't sustainable. 

[00:03:46] Thousands of elephants were being killed every year, just so people could play the piano, play billiards, or comb their hair. 

[00:03:57] And of course, it meant that all of these things were very expensive because ivory was scarce,there wasn't much of it, so the raw materials were expensive. 

[00:04:09] So a billiards company in New York city had an idea. 

[00:04:16] They offered a $10,000 prize, which would be about $350,000 in today's money, they offered this prize for anyone who could invent an alternative. 

[00:04:31] They were, of course, not just doing this out of the goodness of their own heart - if they could make billiard balls cheaper than they could sell more of them. 

[00:04:44] And a man called John Wesley Hyatt, who was an amateur inventor, not even a professional chemist, he decided that he wanted to give it a try. 

[00:04:57] After years of trial and error, he invented something that he called 'celluloid', which was the first type of plastic.

[00:05:08] It was actually made out of cellulose, which is the polymer found in plants. 

[00:05:15] So, strangely enough, the first plastic was actually plant-based.

[00:05:21] However, it wasn't until the mid 20th century that plastic would actually start to really rise in popularity. 

[00:05:32] Cheap hydrocarbons, cheap petrol, had meant that the process to make plastic had become a lot cheaper and quicker, and the economic boom of the post-war years meant that, especially in the United States and Europe, consumers were ready for a world filled with plastic. 

[00:05:55] People had more money and the price for lots of goods had decreased.

[00:06:00] Of course, this meant a big jump in consumption, a big jump in people buying stuff. 

[00:06:09] This new revolutionary plastic was often advertised as to be thrown away as soon as it was used.

[00:06:20] There was a famous front cover of Life magazine in the US in 1955 with the headline ' Throw away living' and a photo of a happy family just throwing plastic plates, cups, knives, and spoons, throwing them up in the air.

[00:06:41] Instead of doing the washing up and cleaning, Americans could now just use things once, then throw them away, never to have to worry about cleaning up because it was so cheap just to buy more. 

[00:07:00] Well, as we all know, 65 years after that magazine cover, it wasn't quite so simple. 

[00:07:09] You can throw away as much plastic as you like, but there are consequences and those consequences are quite serious. 

[00:07:19] The qualities that make plastic so fantastic that it is versatile and hard, these are exactly the same things that make it so hard to get rid of, so difficult to dispose of. 

[00:07:34] The estimates about how long plastic takes to biodegrade range from 450 years to never. 

[00:07:46] If Christopher Columbus in 1492, if he had been drinking bottled water on his way to the Americas and had thrown a plastic bottle over the side of the ship, into the sea, there is a chance that it would still be around today in some shape or form. 

[00:08:06] And those disposable nappies that most babies around the world are currently wearing? 

[00:08:13] When they are thrown away, when your little child needs a new nappy, that same nappy will probably still exist in the world in the 25th century.

[00:08:24] I know it's easy to just throw out statistics, but here are a few numbers just to remind you of what we are all dealing with. 

[00:08:35] Since 1950, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced, and of that 6.4 billion is no longer in use, it's now considered useless.

[00:08:50] So where is this 6.4 billion tonnes of plastic then? 

[00:08:55] Well, of the 6.4 billion, 79% is either in rubbish dumps or sitting somewhere in the natural world. 

[00:09:07] 12% has been burned and only 9% has been recycled. 

[00:09:15] And we are producing more and more plastic every year. 

[00:09:18] Each year we produce 300 million tonnes of plastic, which is about 38 kilos of plastic per person, every single year. 

[00:09:31] Around the world 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every single minute, so by the time you’ve finished listening to this podcast, about 20 million plastic bottles will have been bought. 

[00:09:48] And all of this plastic that is produced, half of it is designed to be used only once and then thrown away. 

[00:09:58] But, you might ask, what actually is the problem with this?

[00:10:02] Is it just because there is plastic flowing into the oceans? 

[00:10:07] It's polluting the rivers and beaches and killing some dolphins and tuna? 

[00:10:13] The reality is that it is doing all of that, but there is a lot about what happens to plastics when they get into the oceans that we don't properly understand yet. 

[00:10:26] We know that plastics do break up into smaller and smaller pieces becoming microplastics and then nanoplastics and they are consumed by fish and perhaps eventually, even humans. 

[00:10:43] What we do know is that we are ingesting a lot of microplastics without knowing it. 

[00:10:52] A study suggested that Americans eat or breathe in at least 74,000 microplastic particles every year, and another study suggested that this adds up to five grammes of plastic every single week, which is about the weight of a credit card.

[00:11:17] What we don't really know though is what this means. 

[00:11:22] We're pretty sure that it's not going to be good for us as plastics are formed of some harmful chemicals, but there haven't been any authoritative studies on what the long term impact of this will be. 

[00:11:38] So we know that we produce a lot of plastic, that it lasts for a long time, that hardly any of it is currently recycled, and that having plastic floating around the oceans is generally a bad idea for multiple reasons.

[00:11:57] But what can we actually do about it? 

[00:12:01] Well, some people might say that we just need to get better at recycling. 

[00:12:07] If we can recycle everything, then we can continue our love affair with plastic and benefit from its convenience while not blocking up our oceans with it. 

[00:12:20] Unfortunately though, new plastic is so cheap to make that it just doesn't really make much economic sense for companies to recycle right now, especially in the developing world where plastic is so ubiquitous, partly because of how cheap it is. 

[00:12:41] And a lot of plastic waste is actually just difficult to recycle. 

[00:12:46] The little packets of shampoo that are sold in places like Indonesia and the Philippines and then thrown away after being used, it would make no sense to recycle them and it would be very difficult to do so. 

[00:13:03] And even things like plastic bottles, the cost of collecting them, taking them to the recycling centre and then recycling them is in many cases quite a lot higher than just making a new bottle.

[00:13:20] This is not to say that recycling is bad, of course, but just to point out that there are some pretty significant issues with thinking that recycling is the complete solution. 

[00:13:32] There is of course an element of behaviour change that can help, partly driven by us consumers and partly driven by governments.

[00:13:44] Things like banning the use of plastic bags, which has been done by several African countries, to consumer action campaigns to refuse single use plastics, like plastic straws for drinks. 

[00:13:59] However, these campaigns are normally a bit of a luxury and tend to happen in more developed, wealthier countries, mainly in Europe and North America. 

[00:14:14] And even though we still have a plastic problem in these countries, it is dwarfed by the plastic problem in several Asian countries. 

[00:14:26] In fact, about half of all the world's plastic waste that ends up in the oceans comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. 

[00:14:43] So even if in Europe and North America, we were able to recycle a hundred percent of our plastic waste, it would only have a small impact on plastic waste globally.

[00:14:58] Of course, refusing a plastic straw at a bar or restaurant is a good thing if you don't need it, but it has an absolutely tiny impact on the global plastic problem.

[00:15:13] There are, as you may have read about, some initiatives that are quite encouraging in terms of moving away from plastic. 

[00:15:22] Carlsberg and Coca-Cola in the Netherlands are trialing plant-based bottles that will degrade within one year, which will mean that consumers can still benefit from the convenience of plastic without the long term environmental impact.

[00:15:43] And in terms of consumer behaviour, there is a lot more awareness of the impact of single use plastic on the environment, and people are making more informed choices and businesses are responding to that with trying to provide more socially responsible products. 

[00:16:03] Coca-Cola, for example, has pledged that it will collect and recycle the equivalent of all of its plastic packaging, which is 128 billion bottles a year, and it has pledged that it will do that by the year 2030. 

[00:16:22] So that is, of course, a positive development. 

[00:16:26] But there is one pretty interesting idea that has been proposed as a solution. 

[00:16:32] And you may think that it would be some revolutionary new technology or a completely new type of plastic, but it's actually a lot simpler than that.

[00:16:43] It's not sexy, not revolutionary, and you might think, well, it's just obvious. 

[00:16:50] It's for there to be some sort of global tax on plastic that will go directly back into rubbish collection services in the countries where most of the plastic pollution happens. 

[00:17:05] The problem with lots of the countries that are most responsible for the world's plastic pollution is just that they have very bad rubbish collection and so most rubbish, of which plastic is the main part, is just thrown ultimately into rivers from where it makes its way into the oceans.

[00:17:28] Indeed, 90% of all of the plastic in the world's oceans comes from just 10 rivers, 8 of which are in Asia and two are in Africa. 

[00:17:42] If there were better rubbish collection in these countries, if rubbish was actually collected regularly and disposed of safely, then that would stop it getting into the oceans in the first place.

[00:17:58] Yes, it wouldn't solve the problem of the plastic that's already in the oceans and it wouldn't solve our addiction to cheap plastic, but it would mean that it was safely disposed of and we could stop the flood of plastic going into the oceans every year, 8 million tonnes at the last estimate. 

[00:18:20] The solution, or at least a solution, is sometimes a lot more obvious than you might think. 

[00:18:29] Okay then, I hope that this has been an interesting look into the world of plastic. 

[00:18:35] It is a product that has made our lives infinitely more convenient, but that convenience comes with a price. 

[00:18:45] While we don't fully understand what that price is, we're pretty sure it's one that's not worth paying.

[00:18:54] As always, I would love to know what you thought of the show. 

[00:18:58] You can email hi Hi@leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:19:03] As a final reminder, if you are looking for all of the bonus member only episodes plus transcripts, key vocabulary, member-only discussion sessions and more, then the place to go to is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:19:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:19:25] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]