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It is that, at a deep level, the whole way we think about plastic has been transformed. We used to see it as litter -- a nuisance but not a menace. That idea has been undermined by the recent widespread acknowledgment that plastic is far more pervasive and sinister than most people had ever imagined.

The shift in thinking started with the public outcry over microbeads, the small, abrasive grains of plastic that companies began pouring into cosmetic and cleaning products in the mids to add grit. Nearly every plastic product has a natural and often biodegradable antecedent -- plastic microbeads replaced ground seed kernels or pumice stones. The realisation that microbeads were pouring down millions of shower drains was a key moment in the public turn against plastic, according to Will McCallum, head of plastics campaigns at Greenpeace UK.

Microbeads were only the beginning. The public would soon learn that synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester shed thousands of microscopic fibres with each wash cycle. After scientists started showing how these fibres ended up lodged in the guts of fish, newspapers ran articles with headlines such as "Yoga pants are destroying the Earth", while eco-conscious brands such as Patagonia scrambled for solutions.

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Last year Patagonia began selling a washing-machine insert called Guppyfriend, which it says will catch "some" of the plastic sloughing off its clothing. Everyday items began to seem like sources of contagion, and there was little any individual could do about it. On the forums of parenting website Mumsnet, there are hundreds of posts about alternative cosmetic products that don't contain microbeads -- but there are as yet no plastic-free tyres.

MP Anna McMorrin, who has raised the issue in parliament, told me her constituents were exasperated. For most people, plastic seemed easy to grasp. It was the things people purchased and threw away. People could see it and touch it, and in a way it felt like it was under control. Even if people weren't doing anything about the problem, they felt they could if they really wanted to -- and in the most immediate way possible, by simply picking it up and putting it in the bin.

But plastic no longer seems like this. It is still immediate -- it's in our household products, coffee cups, teabags and clothing -- but it seems to have escaped our ability to catch it. It slips through our fingers and our water filters and sloshes into rivers and oceans like effluent from a sinister industrial factory. It is no longer embodied by a Big Mac container on the side of the road. It has come to seem more like a previously unnoticed chemical listed halfway down the small print on a hairspray bottle, ready to mutate fish or punch a hole in the ozone layer.

The public turn against plastic was not foreseen by scientists or environmental activists, most of whom are used to their warnings going unheeded. In fact, today some scientists seem vaguely embarrassed by the scale of the backlash.

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That should be climate change. But unlike climate change, which seems vague, vast, and apocalyptic, plastic is smaller, more tangible, it is in your life right now. People just want things fixed. There is the sense that you have joined an insurgent political campaign.

Businesses, from Costa Coffee to the high street greengrocer, have signs of support in the windows. It kills whales,'" a young barman told me. A builder named Dylan told me that he has begun recommending his clients choose fittings without plastic packaging. At Chester Zoo, the facilities manager said that their cafe is eliminating single-use plastic packaging, and they are auditing the gift store as well.

The zoo is the biggest attraction in the area, and a huge get for the campaign. And other things for the animals? The manager said they'd look into it. On our way out, a group of schoolchildren walked toward the elephant pen holding purple Mylar balloons. As a result, we have entered a phase where every brand, organisation and politician strains to be seen to be doing something. Monitoring this firehose of press releases for even a few weeks, you learn that Tottenham Hotspur are planning to phase out all single-use plastic from their new stadium, Seattle has banned plastic straws within city limits, while its most famous coffee chain, Starbucks, has promised to remove an estimated 1bn straws a year across its 28, global locations, and Lego, which doesn't make any non-plastic products, is looking into plant-based plastics for its production lines.

There is a slight tinge of mania to all this. Natalie Fee, an activist who founded the Bristol-based campaign group City to Sea, told me that after appearing on the BBC last year to talk about plastic she began receiving multiple requests to speak at banks and corporate boardrooms about her work, like a motivational guru. And there is also a clear note of opportunism.

A former highly placed staff member at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Defra told me that the recent focus on plastics was widely seen within the department as a ministerial scramble for popular non-partisan policies to fill the void after the Brexit referendum. It's turned out both of those have worked really well for plastics," the Defra staffer said. Whatever politicians' motivations, the public backlash has undoubtedly brought a serious environmental problem to the attention of the highest level of government and business, and convinced them it is a winning issue.

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Only a fraction of the proposed measures against plastic have been codified by law -- the US and UK microbead bans are the exceptions -- but the feeling is one of enormous potential. Despite its ubiquitous presence in our lives, most people would struggle to tell you what plastic is, who makes it and where it came from. This is understandable: plastic is a global industrial product, made far from the public eye. The raw materials come from fossil fuels, and many of the same vast companies that produce oil and gas also produce plastic, often in the same facilities. The story of plastic is the story of the fossil fuel industry -- and the oil-fuelled boom in consumer culture that followed the second world war.

Plastic is a catch-all term for the product made by turning a carbon-rich chemical mixture into a solid structure. In the 19th century, chemists and inventors were already making household objects such as combs from a brittle, early form of plastic, first called Parkesine, later renamed celluloid, after the plant cellulose from which it was made. But the modern age of plastic began with the invention of Bakelite in the US in Bakelite -- a fully synthetic material that used phenol, a chemical left over from the process of turning crude oil or coal into petrol, as its starting point -- is hard, shiny and brightly coloured.

In other words, it is recognisable to us today as plastic. Its inventors intended to use Bakelite as an insulator for electrical wiring, but quickly realised its near-limitless potential, advertising it as the "material of a thousand uses". This would prove to be a significant underestimate. New varieties of plastic were developed over the next few decades, and the public was fascinated with this infinitely malleable wonder material that science had created.

But it was the second world war that made plastic truly indispensable. With shortages of natural materials, and the enormous demands of the war effort, plastic's potential to become nearly anything -- using just "coal, water and air", as the pioneering plastics chemist Victor Yarsley said in -- made it vital to the state's military machine.

A Popular Mechanics article from describes troops' visors and gunsights, mortar shell detonators and airplane canopies newly made of plastic. Military units, it was reported, had even begun using plastic bugles. US plastic production more than tripled between and , from 97, tonnes to , tonnes. After the war, chemical and petroleum giants consolidated the market between them.

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DuPont, Monsanto, Mobil and Exxon bought or developed plastic production facilities. This made logistical sense: these companies already supplied the raw material for plastic, in the form of phenol and naphtha, byproducts from their existing petroleum operations. By developing new plastic products -- like Dow's invention of Styrofoam in the s, or the multiple patents held by Mobil for plastic films used in packaging -- these companies were effectively creating new markets for their oil and gas.

In the decades of meteoric economic growth that followed the war, plastic began the inexorable rise that would see it replace cotton, glass and cardboard as the material of choice for consumer products. Thin plastic wrapping was introduced in the early s, displacing the paper and cloth protecting consumer goods and dry cleaning.

By the end of the decade, DuPont reported more than a billion plastic sheets sold to retailers. At the same time, plastic entered millions of homes in the form of latex paint and polystyrene insulation, vast improvements over pungent oil paint and expensive rockwool or wood fibre panels. Soon, plastic was everywhere, even outer space. In , the flag that Neil Armstrong planted on the moon was made of nylon. The following year, Coke and Pepsi began replacing their glass bottles with plastic versions manufactured by Monsanto chemical and Standard Oil.

But plastic did more than merely take the place of existing materials, leaving the world otherwise unchanged. Its unique properties -- being simultaneously more malleable and easier to work with, and also far cheaper and lighter than the materials it replaced -- actually helped kickstart the global economy's shift to disposal consumerism. Just a year earlier, in , Lloyd Stouffer, the editor of the trade journal Modern Plastics, was mocked in the press when he told an industry conference that "the future of plastics is in the trash can".

By , he addressed the same conference fully vindicated: "You are filling the trash cans, the rubbish dumps and the incinerators with literally billions of plastics bottles, plastics jugs, plastics tubes, blisters and skin packs, plastics bags and films and sheet packages," he crowed. As one researcher from the Midwest Research Institute, an engineering research firm, wrote in , "the powerful motive force behind the development of the throw-away container market is the fact that each returnable bottle displaced from the market means the sale of 20 non-returns".

In , the Society for the Plastics Industry trade body reported that plastics had entered their 13th straight year of record growth. But it also meant rubbish.


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Disposability meant that a previously unimaginable number of items were being dumped into landfills. At a EPA conference on the growing waste problem, Rolf Eliassen, a science adviser to the White House, claimed "the social costs of collection, processing and disposal of these indestructible items is tremendous". What followed was a backlash against disposable culture in general, and plastic in particular, not unlike what we see today.

In , the New York Times reported that an "avalanche of waste and waste disposal problems is building up around the nation's major cities in an impending emergency that may parallel the existing crises in air and water," elevating garbage to the level of the major environmental concerns of the day. In , two months before the first Earth Day celebration, President Nixon bemoaned "new packaging methods, using materials which do not degrade", and complained that "we often discard today what a generation ago we saved".

New York City instituted a tax on plastic bottles in , Congress debated a ban on all non-returnable containers in , and the state of Hawaii banned plastic bottles entirely in A battle against plastic had begun, and at that moment, it seemed like it could be won.

From the start, the industry fought hard against all the proposed legislation. The New York City plastic bottle tax was struck down by the state supreme court the same year it was levied, following a lawsuit by the Society for the Plastics Industry alleging unfair treatment; Hawaii's plastic bottle ban was struck down in a state circuit court in after a similar lawsuit from a drinks company; the congressional ban never got off the ground after lobbyists claimed it would hurt manufacturing jobs.

Having seen off these legislative threats, a loose alliance of oil and chemical companies, along with drinks and packaging manufacturers, pursued a two-part strategy that would successfully defuse anti-plastic sentiment for a generation. The first part of the strategy was to shift responsibility for litter and waste from companies to consumers. Rather than blaming the companies that had promoted disposable packaging and made millions along the way, these same companies argued that irresponsible individuals were the real problem.

This argument was epitomised by a editorial in a US packaging trade journal headlined "Guns Don't Kill People", which blamed "the litterbugs who abuse our countryside" rather than the manufacturers themselves.