Sharing Nature: Plastic fantastic

Thre are serious concerns about plastics in the environment. At the same time plastic materials make our lives much easier, even in the natural world.

By Lalita Kaplish

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Since the first artificial plastic was manufactured in 1907, plastics (they’re a family of materials) have insinuated themselves into every aspect of our lives. But as another alarming report warns us that 83% of drinking water sampled from around the world is contaminated with plastic fibres, we're slowly getting the message that plastics and nature don’t mix. Is it really that straightforward though?

Photo submitted by Heather Korby.

The plastic boat in this photo is used to maintain the Northampton & District model boat club pond. As Heather Korby, who submitted the image for the PLASTIC theme in our Sharing Nature Project, says, it has an environmental function in removing blanket weed and retrieving lost boats. It’s perfect for the job – lightweight, long-lasting and easy to maintain.

It’s made of plastic but this boat is actually enhancing our experience of nature. Maybe we could argue that it should be replaced by a wooden boat, but is it fair to expect the model boat club to purchase and maintain something more costly and less practical? Maybe they would have to have fewer boats, maybe the pond would not get cleared so often?

Some decisions like cutting back on plastic shopping bags and recycling are easy to make, others are more complicated - because plastics also make our lives better in so many ways.

Once plastic micro-particles and fibres get into the environment they can release toxins and contaminants into the food chain. Where do these micro-particles come from? The same report says that “each cycle of a washing machine could release 700,000 fibres into the environment”. Does this mean I should give up my fleece jackets?

About the contributors

Photograph of Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish


Lalita is a web editor at Wellcome Collection.