In Defence of Plastics, The Miracle Material


Plastic snowcatchers. Nationaal Archief via Flickr Commons

We have made fun of the stuff ever since Mr. McGuire told Ben in the Graduate "I just want to say one word to you .... just one word...Plastics. There's a great future in plastics."

Certainly at TreeHugger, what with Bisphenol A and phthalates and PVC and vinyl, it has been the personification of evil.

But Susan Freinkel notes in the New York Times that it is not all bad, and in some cases can be quite wonderful.

Freinkel writes that plastics were developed to replace the use of scarce natural resources:

Originally, plastic was hailed for its potential to reduce humankind's heavy environmental footprint. The earliest plastics were invented as substitutes for dwindling supplies of natural materials like ivory or tortoiseshell. When the American John Wesley Hyatt patented celluloid in 1869, his company pledged that the new manmade material, used in jewelry, combs, buttons and other items, would bring "respite" to the elephant and tortoise because it would "no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer."

She notes that the problem isn't the plastic, but the way we use it.That the material is too valuable to be wasted on cheap junk, but should be reserved for the things that can best take advantage of its properties.

Plastic has become synonymous with cheap and worthless, when in fact those chains of hydrocarbons ought to be regarded as among the most valuable substances on the planet. If we understood plastic's true worth, we would stop wasting it on trivial throwaways and take better advantage of what this versatile material can do for us.

Not all plastics are equal; vinyl is softened with phthalates that have effects on humans that are just beginning to be understood. PET is usually made with toxic antimony and we use it for disposable water bottles. We buy disposable products made from increasingly scarce fossil fuels and toss them in the dump. But Freinkel suggests that there are alternatives to going plastic-free, including making them from renewable resources, getting rid of harmful chemicals and changing our disposable culture.

Maybe Mr. McGuire was right.

More in the New York Times.

Over at the Green Workplace, HOK Vice President and architect Leigh Stringer read the article and does a bit of a mea culpa:

I guess I need to revise previous statements I've made about plastic. I'm not against ALL plastic, just the stuff made to be tossed that leaches away in our garbage dumps like one-time-use bottles and bags. I LIKE plastic in solar panels, lighter cars and planes (reducing fossil fuel use) and medical devices that keep people alive. I also like the plastic that helps my clothes last longer, prevents my 5 year old from breaking glass (thank goodness for reusable cups and plates) and makes lots of things affordable.

Just as long as she and other architects don't soften under pressure regarding PVC. I have no doubt that the Vinyl Association and the American Chemistry Council are sending this article everywhere as justification for their poison product. It's not.

More on vinyl:
Good News: Exposure to Vinyl is Less Risky than Car Accidents or Strokes : TreeHugger

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