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    The late 19th and early 20th centuries shared some of the same environmental issues that also concern us today: air and water pollution, power generation from coal and species extinction. One difference between then and now is the shift in why some of our world’s species are endangered. Previously, elephant tusks, tortoise shells and animal horns were in huge demand for items like piano keys, trinket boxes, hair accessories, buttons, cutlery handles and jewellery.

    The world experienced a game-changer in 1909 when Bakelite – the first truly synthetic plastic – was patented. Plastic technology continued to evolve, and by the 1950s, plastic items were well and truly part of everyday life in many parts of the world. The new technologies not only replaced products made from animals but also from wood, glass, metal and natural textiles. Lightweight robust materials reduced breakage and transport costs and revolutionised travel, healthcare and many other aspects of human life.

    Too much of a good thing

    The same properties that make plastic so useful are the cause of many of the environmental problems we face today. Plastic items are inexpensive to produce so we’ve created a single-use disposable mindset. In 2015, the world produced 407 million tonnes of plastic, and nearly 75% of it was discarded as waste. This strong robust ‘miracle’ material takes a very long time to break down, and as it does, it creates microplastics.

    We are aware that our planet – and especially our oceans – are burdened by plastic waste. It sits alongside climate change as one of the greatest threats to our ecosystems. Governments, industries and individuals are uniting to try and tackle this global issue.

    Rethinking plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand

    Royal Society Te Apārangi and the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor are taking key roles in addressing New Zealand’s response to plastic pollution.

    Royal Society Te Apārangi released a report in July 2019 outlining the manufacture, use and disposal of plastics and how they enter and accumulate in the environment.

    We are publishing this report to raise awareness of the extent of the issue of waste plastics and to provide information to help us collectively figure out how we can turn the issue of plastic pollution around in Aotearoa. It complements a report on policy options and potential actions from Professor Juliet Gerrard’s Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

    Royal Society Te Apārangi President Professor Wendy Larner

    The Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor is assessing evidence of plastic use in Aotearoa New Zealand and “the range of social and technological solutions to issues in the plastic life cycle – from production through to consumer behaviour and disposal”.

    The Rethinking Plastics project is … analysing and collating the evidence-base to guide a series of recommendations for Aotearoa New Zealand to mitigate the negative impacts of plastic while retaining its many benefits.

    Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor

    Then and now

    More than a century after Bakelite’s introduction, Earth and its occupants still struggle with air and water pollution, emissions from coal and fossil fuels and species extinction – some of this due to our use, and misuse, of plastic.

    It’s not all negative though. The timeline below presents a brief history of plastic: technological advances, societal and environmental impacts and some of the initiatives helping us rethink how we use plastics.

    Related content

    Plastic is a wicked problem. It’s incredibly useful, but it’s also a huge environmental issue. A helpful resource is Thinking about plastic – planning pathways, which includes our interactive planning pathway – use this to begin a cross-curricular look at plastics.

    Use these tools to tackle wicked problems like plastic in the classroom: Futures thinking toolkit, Ethics thinking toolkit and pedagogical support for tackling big global issues.

    Bring some citizen science into the classroom with the local Litter Intelligence or the international project Litterati.

    Useful links

    Visit the Royal Society Te Apārangi website for the report Plastics in the Environment and other resources.

    Visit the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor website for project details about Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand.

      Published 5 December 2019 Referencing Hub articles