Life in plastic. It’s not so fantastic.

Life in plastic, it’s fantastic in a Barbie world 

Aqua, Barbie Girl 1997


I’m addicted to you
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
And I love what you do
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?

– Britney Spears, Toxic 2003


The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence

– Simon and Garfunkel, Sounds of Silence 1964


The words of the prophets are also in the dictionary. The words of the year 2018, according to Oxford and Collins dictionaries respectively, are toxic and single-use.

According to the dictionaries, toxic and single-use capture the ethos, mood and preoccupations of today. Ouch! A bit grim, isn’t it?

Once upon a time, toxic was used exclusively to describe something as poisonous.

Its origin is Greek – toxikon pharmakon – a lethal poison used by the ancient Greeks for smearing on their arrowheads. Last year it oozed into the language bloodstream and rapidly spread.  Toxic politics, toxic relationships, toxic workplaces, toxic masculinity, toxic environment, toxic culture… to name a few.

Toxic chemicals also headlined this year when Russian military spies allegedly used a toxic nerve agent to poison a former Russian intelligence officer and his daughter in the sleepy provincial city of Salisbury in the UK. International relations between the UK and Russia became rather toxic for a few weeks.

Here is how the Oxford Dictionary announced its word of the year:

Obviously, Britney Spears knew something we didn’t. She had a hit song Toxic in 2003.

And, of course, there is toxic plastic which brings us to the term single-use, which is the Collins dictionary word of 2018.

Single-use refers to products, mostly made of plastic, which are manufactured to be used only once before they are thrown away. Plastic bags and straws are a good example. Here a few statistics to try and wrap your head around:

  • Nearly two million single-use plastic bags are distributed worldwide every minute. That’s about a trillion a year.
  • A person uses a plastic carrier bag on average for only 12 minutes.
  • On average we only recycle one plastic bag in every 200 we use.
  • It takes 500 or more years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. The bags don’t break down completely but instead become micro-plastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.
  • 500 million single-use plastic straws are used every day in America.

The term single-use has allowed some people, mainly in wealthy, industrialised countries, to identify and question their easy-come, easy-go, throw-away lifestyle and obsession with plastic. This scene from the BBCDavid Attenborough documentary Blue Planet II, shocked many people.

Life in plastic, is now not so fantastic.  Plastic is found throughout the food chain and tiny plastic particles and fibres (no surprise, please) are now found in human waste. We also are ingesting plastic. We are now part-plastic.

The European parliament recently backed a ban on single-use plastics such as straws, cotton swabs, disposable plates and bottles and cutlery. It is expected to come into effect in 2021.

But there’s a long, perhaps impossible voyage ahead. Almost every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated).

We go from breast to plastic teat, to plastic spoons and forks and plates and pens and bags, from plastic nappies or diapers to windproof jackets and ski pants. We fly on airplanes that are made head-to-tail with carbon-fibre reinforced plastic.

Plastic was a miracle invention as the American Plastics Council tells us:

Today supermarkets are introducing plastic free aisles, as we start to think about ways to slow down the massive plastic juggernaut, which has served us so well and is now a threat to our health. It’s become toxic.


Top photo: Unsplash

Garry Littman

Garry Littman

Garry Littman est le fondateur de The Language House à Genève. The Language House propose des coachings d'anglais à Genève pour les particuliers et les entreprises, ainsi que des cours intensifs d'anglais dans les pays anglophones. Garry a été journaliste en Australie et en Asie, il a travaillé pour World Radio Switzerland.

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