Take an average plastic bottle. But this time really look at it. Feel the little nobble underneath and at the top of the cap; the sprue. This is evidence that the bottle has been injection moulded. The sprue is the where the plastic has been fed into a mould and when it’s finished that little nobble is what you are left with. For centuries to make a bottle glassmakers would painstakingly blow air into ferociously hot glass. Bottles were created by breath until human ingenuity came up with the injection moulding process, using the miraculous material that is plastic, that would revolutionise the modern world.
Next examine the label. We are now in some ways, since the arrival of the internet, moving into a post-print world, but the 15th-century arrival of the Guttenberg printing press enabled printed material to reach the masses for the first time in history. The label on a plastic bottle with its full-colour intensity is a direct descendent of wood-cut type, and itself a product of years of industrial evolution in engineering and processes.
The contents of your bottle may well have been made using sugar. We take sugar completely for granted today, but you only have to watch bakers from years ago grinding up sugar loaves or look at the early human cost of producing it to realise that these now ubiquitous substance, was once, like salt before it, incredibly highly prized.
Think about how your bottle has arrived in your hand. Presumably it was purchased from a shop. It arrived at the shop from a factory via a mechanised and transport-heavy distribution network. A process facilitated by the internal combustion engine.
If your bottle is a coloured one, for example a Robinsons Fruit Shoot, then consider its colour for a minute. The ability to produce colour by artists, using hard-won-by pigments or dyers using plants has a well-documented and fascinating history, but our colour-saturated world of intense oranges, reds, greens and blues means that unless we are choosing wall coverings or clothing we don’t really pay too much attention to it. Yet why was purple used for royalty for centuries? Rarity. Purple was created by using a tiny, tiny and very rare sea snail. By definition if you wore purple you had access to something no-one else did and were deemed as being special. Things themselves have no actual intrinsic value they are simply given value by the society it exists within.
If we could time travel, and take a plastic bottle with us, and demonstrate to a pre-plastic population what this bottle could do, i.e. very effectively cleanly and safely hold, without leaks, any liquid you wanted, they would no doubt be astounded by this space-age artefact.
And where do I most commonly come across this miracle item, the plastic bottle? Once divested of its contents it’s often found in gutters or street pavements. Sitting on a garden wall, squashed under the wheels of a car or lying on the beach. It could be lucky enough to end up being recycled, but if pictures of racks and racks of squashed plastic being turned away from China is anything to go by then it could just spend its extra-ordinary long life in see-bound purgatory.
The plastic bottle is seen as not having a value, it is the contents we want. Quickly consumed the empty vessel becomes valueless it is discarded, often not very responsibly.
Now, more than ever, our choices, thoughts and opinions about things are dicatated by social media, by trends. Is this cool, or not? Upcycling or making do and mending as it used to be called before it received its hipster makeoever, is something people did for generations. But a post-war generation ground down by austerity rejected all that in a favour of a brave new world of hyper consumption. Making do and mending or buying secondhand went from being something worthy and evidence of your practicality to becoming a byword for either cheapness or lack of funds. Recently thriftiness has come back into fashion again. Great. But what about all those people in the meantime who were judged harshly for hanging on to things that were outdated or life-worn? I suppose the older you get the more you realise that these things come in cycles and if you can ride the wave of opprobrium you know that everything has its day, or several days.
I think it’s these people that maybe we should start to listen to. The ones who are on the sidelines, who seem to be going against prevailing thoughts, who are currently pointing out the madness of allowing plastics to fill the seas, the ones suggesting that having bottle deposit schemes would add value to disposable items. It would certainly, I imagine, make the streets a bit cleaner. But ultimately as history seems to attest, we value that which is rare, so surely the only way for us to fully appreciate plastic is for it to become a little less ubiquitous.
Sign the bottle-deposit petition https://secure.greenpeace.org.uk/page/s/bottle-deposit