We’ve all heard a lot about plastic and the problems it causes in the environment – choking waterways, creating huge floating patches in the ocean, clogging the guts of seabirds and other marine wildlife, tangling around legs of wading birds and songbird hatchlings, overflowing landfills, being an unsightly mess on beaches, shorelines, trails, and more. More and more groups are advocating a plastic-free lifestyle, encouraging everyone to ditch plastic entirely. But plastic isn’t really the problem.
What Is Plastic?
Plastic is an amazing material. A compound polymer, it is superbly malleable, able to be formed into a wide range of shapes and sizes, with different degrees of strength, durability, and flexibility. It is low-cost, waterproof, and available in a wide range of formulas for different uses.
This miracle material is older than many people realize. The first recognized plastic was invented in 1856 from natural materials, and the first truly synthetic plastics were invented in the early 1900s. Plastic continues to evolve today, with new variations derived from alternative materials and designed for specialized purposes every year.
Today plastic is ingrained in every part of our lives, whether we recognize it or not. It is found in the simplest items – toys, cups, toothbrushes, bags, plates, ropes, etc. – as well as in the most complex items – spacecraft, computers, cell phones, medical monitors, and more. Eyeglasses, home siding, pipes, vehicle bumpers, tape, DVDs, insulation, picture frames, identification cards, protective wrappings, ballpoint pens, cooking utensils, those little ends on shoelaces or drawstrings (called aglets) – all are made of plastic. And that’s only the beginning of the list of the plastic all around us.
How Plastic Helps Us
Plastic is one of the most useful materials in existence. Because of its flexibility, it can be formulated for a wide range of applications. Its lightweight nature makes it ideal for saving space and bulk. It is inexpensive, making many items available to the masses that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive or impractical. In many applications, plastic has overtaken wood, glass, stone, and metal, making items cheaper, more durable, and more versatile than ever. Plastic makes difficult medical procedures easier and more affordable, helps families and friends keep in touch with one another, protects our safety in all types of vehicles, improves cleanliness and sanitation, organizes our lives, and provides endless entertainment.
How Plastic Helps Birds
Plastic is even helpful for birds. Many bird feeders are constructed from plastic, allowing for lightweight designs that are still durable enough to hold all types of seed, suet, nectar, and other foods. Plastic baffles can protect feeders from raids, shelter seed from snow and ice, and keep bird houses out of reach of predators. Even bird houses themselves, including wren houses, purple martin gourds, owl boxes, and duck boxes, can safely be made from plastic. Plastic bags and containers of birdseed can be more safely stored and stay fresh for weeks, plastic cages are essential for rehabilitating sick or injured birds, and plastic bird baths can provide water for birds to drink and bathe year-round.
As birders, we also rely on plastic in many ways. Our optics, from simple monoculars to classic binoculars to state-of-the-art spotting scopes, use all types of plastic. Plastic may be part of the clips, buckles, and other fasteners on our field bags, and field guides can have plastic-coated covers to resist moisture and wear. A great deal of our gear – water bottles, pens, cameras, tubes of lip balm, bottles of insect repellent – also includes plastic.
The REAL Problem
Plastic itself is not the problem. How we treat plastic, how it is discarded, what becomes of it – that IS the problem. And that is what we are going to explore and discuss through Be Your Own Birder in the coming weeks and months. This first step – recognizing what plastic is and how helpful it can be – is only the beginning, but is an essential start if we are to change our relationship to plastic and solve the problems we cause with it. There are many ways we can do so, and finding the way that works best for you is what Be Your Own Birder is all about.
How will you get along with plastic?