Why it’s time to break up with plastic

Is plastic causing birth rates to crash? Should you commit to buying less instead of recycling more? Dr Jessica van Horssen, Senior Lecturer in North American History, explores the past to discover how we can stop an environmental catastrophe in the future.


Jessica Van Horssen

When you imagine studying history, you probably picture yourself reading accounts of historic events, trying to get a glimpse of life in the past. But attend a lecture with Dr Jessica van Horssen and she’ll shatter your preconceptions of what being a historian is all about.

Like many Leeds Beckett researchers, Jessica focuses on major issues affecting society today and in the future. She forges connections between past and present, inspiring people to change their behaviour to help us preserve the planet for generations to come.

Connecting past and present

At LBU, Jessica teaches North American history. She brings the subject to life by getting her students to think about the past in new ways, whether that’s doing practical field work or finding parallels with your own experiences.

I ask my students what they think and encourage them to explore why certain things might have happened. Part of their learning is becoming confident making broader connections between the past and present.

Jessica’s own work focuses on the use of plastic – its history, the impact it’s having today, and the future of our planet because of it. She explains “there are many things people think will make life better, but it’s actually killing them. These are the areas I want to examine.” After seeing the amount of plastic in the ocean for herself during a sail around the UK, Jessica started looking into the history of the material.

I’ve been examining when we started inviting this material into our homes and into our bodies. I’ve examined everything from Christmas trees to Astro turf.

The problem of plastic

Plastic has been around for a long time, but it was only after World War II that it started to become a part of our lives. It was viewed as a magical material that would make the world more equal – the low cost meant average families could benefit from its transformative effect.

But we live in a disposable culture where most people thoughtlessly throw things away. We all know that the amount of plastic is causing an environmental catastrophe, but research shows it’s even leeching into our bodies – as plastic breaks down it releases endocrine disruptors. This means it’s starting to skew the birth-rate, which researchers have found is having an undeniable impact on the human population.

However, the problem starts much lower in the ecosystem. The water downstream from plastic manufacturing plants is even chemically castrating frogs. And we’re only just beginning to understand how it’s having a huge impact on fish in the sea – from the smallest fish to the biggest shark.

Say goodbye to your chippy on a Friday night. Those fishing stocks are collapsing – the fish are full of plastic and can’t reproduce.

Plastic floating around the ocean with fish

How long until it’s gone?

  • Apple core: 2 months
  • Plastic bag: 10-20 years
  • Aluminium can: 200 years
  • Plastic bottle: 450 years
  • Fishing line: 600 years

Make deliberate choices

Recycling alone isn’t going to cut it. Jessica explains, “We’re at a turning point and we need to make deliberate choices to create change. Think about where your rubbish goes and where your food comes from. For example, people shifting to vegetarianism is great, but if we’re getting chickpeas flown over from Brazil then that’s a problem.” But societies can change, she argues.

As a historian, I always like to say there is room for hope. We’ve come back from bad things before and we can do it again.

New thinking for teaching history

Studying history at LBU isn’t just looking at the problems of the past, you’ll be thinking about real solutions to the current challenges we’re facing in society.

You’ll be searching for the truth of a subject, and sometimes that will take you to unexpected places. We all know that plastic is a problem for sea creatures, but how many of us realise that the inequality of where this plastic pollution occurs? Jessica will encourage you “to explore how toxic waste dumps are often besides marginalised populations, whether it’s next to African American communities in America or indigenous communities in the Amazon.”

Learning through doing

Jessica’s research on this topic started with an ocean plastic survey. If you take one of Jessica’s classes, she’ll encourage you to do your own practical work too:

We encourage students to experiment. After all, we do crazy things ourselves. For me, it was sailing around the UK to test for plastics contamination. My colleague researches the food King George III ate – she even gives cooking demonstrations of those recipes.

Jessica has been recognised by the Royal Historical Society for her innovative teaching of digital history. Study with her at Leeds Beckett and you’ll learn that history is all about testing things out, whether by exploring artificial reality or experimenting with 3D modelling.

Dr Jessica Van Horssen

Senior Lecturer / Cultural Studies & Humanities

Dr. Jessica van Horssen's scholarship focusses on the history of environmental health in North America and the wider world. Her work highlights the connections between modernity and toxicity in bodies of land, human bodies, and the body politic.

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