Plastic and the WWII Rationing Challenge: A different kind of food waste


In 1946, just a few months after the end of WWII, 87,000 people rushed to the first National Plastics Exposition in New York, prompting the fire marshal to halt the event [1].  Plastic production, largely for military uses, had increased during the war. But with the end of the war plastic burst with a vengeance into consumer markets and Plastic Age, defined by the ubiquity of these versatile and robust materials, began in earnest. The mass production of plastic consumer goods promised convenience and affordable abundance—a democratization of physical possessions.  Susan Freinkel writes in Plastic: a Toxic Love Story that “Plastics freed us from the confines of the natural world, from the material constraints and limited supplies that had long bounded human activity” [2].  1.7 million tons of plastic were produced in 1954, in 2014 it was 311 million. How much is 311 million tons? It’s about the weight of 31,000 Eiffel towers. Placed side to side, these towers would occupy enough land area to carpet nearly 2.5 Londons (1,572 square km) [3].

Our appetite for plastic is insatiable and growing, but unfortunately most plastic doesn’t degrade quickly. Much of the plastic we produce will likely persist for hundreds or even thousands of years in the environment [5, 6]. Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us envisions what would happen to the planet should humans suddenly disappear; the chapter devoted to plastic is aptly titled ‘Polymers are Forever’. Pondering how long it might take for the post-human earth to free itself of plastic, Weisman quips ‘there’s always geologic time’– invoking the immense timescales over which mountains and continents are formed [7]. In the meanwhile all our accumulating plastic has to go somewhere. While a portion is recycled, far too much goes to landfills (In Europe, at least 800 Eiffel towers worth of plastic found their way to landfill in 2014 alone [4]), to the streets of countries too poor to clean it up, and into the oceans. 

A stark example of the global pervasiveness of plastic pollution was published recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [8]. Scientists from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds headed to Henderson Island to catalogue beach plastic. Henderson is uninhabited and isolated, sitting in the South Pacific Ocean far from any major land mass.  But rather than a pristine environment, the researchers found staggering quantities of plastic — an estimated 17,601 kg, with more washing up each day. While the remoteness of Henderson and the extremity of the pollution combined to create quite a shock, the fact that mass quantities of plastic enter the ocean each day is well established—researchers were already pulling plastic out of the guts of seabirds in the 1960s [9].  Pieces of plastic act as sinks for toxic chemicals, can physically entangle animals, and are ingested by a wide variety of marine life. Sea birds, for example, can starve to death after ingesting large quantities of plastic. If they don’t starve, leaching of toxic chemicals from the ingested plastic can cause organ damage [10, 11].

If plastic promised freedom, that freedom was temporary at best; plastic as currently used cannot achieve the lofty postwar vision that had tens of thousands rushing the National Plastics Exhibition. It cannot, ultimately, free us from natural restrictions; rather, continuing to pump plastic unidirectionally into the environment will irrecoverably harm species, ecosystems, and humans.

In the ‘Age of Plastic’ disposable plastic products are everywhere. In terms of food, most products at the grocery store come wrapped in plastic that will be used once and then discarded. I would argue that a sustainable diet for the modern era involves not just changing what food we eat, but how we consume it, and that reducing food-associated plastic waste is critical to a truly sustainable way of eating. Plastics Europe estimates that 40% of plastic goes to packaging, meaning that reducing our use of single-use plastic packaging can have a real impact [4]. So, in the spirit of the WWII Rationing Challenge- of reducing waste and exploring new habits to develop a more sustainable diet- let’s try to also reduce the amount of plastic consumed! Indeed, sustainable food and waste reduction easily go hand in hand, so much so that by eating a diet focused on local, plant-based foods you’ll likely cut down on plastic waste without even realizing it! Cooking for yourself and making an effort to limit food waste can both reduce plastic waste tremendously. Additionally one of the best ways to reduce packaging is to shop at farmers’ markets, where fruits and veggies (and sometimes bread and other commodities) are often sold unpackaged, and you can bring your own cloth bags or glass jars to hold your purchases.



[2] Freinkel, Susan. Plastic: a toxic love story. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011



[5] Andrady, A.L. (2011) Microplastics in the marine environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 62: 1596-1605

[6] Barnes, Galgani, Thompson and Barlaz (2009) Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, Biological Sciences. 364: 1185-1188

[7] Weisman, Alan The World Without Us. Picador, 2008

[8] Lavers and Bond (2017) Exceptional and rapid accumulation of anthropogenic debris on one of the world’s most remote and pristine islands. PNAS. 114: 6052-6055

[9] Kenyon and Kridler (1969) Laysan Albatrosses swallow indigestible matter. The Auk. 86: 339-343

[10] Wilcox, Sebille and Hardestry (2015) Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive and increasing. PNAS 112: 11899-11904.

[11] Van et al., (2012) Persistent organic pollutants in plastic marine debris found on beaches in San Diego, California. Chemosphere 86: 258-263