Beautiful, terrible plastic

Published Tuesday, March 28, 2017 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

The 1967 movie “The Graduate” is probably best remembered for a memorable, single-word line. 

“Plastics!” Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) asserts to young Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman).  When it’s clear Benjamin is puzzled, he adds, “There's a great future in plastics.”

What a prophetic forecast.  Fifty years later, plastics are everywhere in our lives – and, unfortunately, our environment.  They’re both beautiful and terrible.

Beautiful plastic

“Plastic” refers to a broad range of man-made materials that can be made into bags, bottles, jugs, clamshell containers, stretch wrap, pipes, disposable cutlery, drinking straws and more. 

Bakelite, the first plastic, was created a century ago.  It’s since been joined by polyethylene, high-density polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, polypropylene, nylon and dozens of others.

Because they are cheap, versatile, waterproof, light and strong, plastics have displaced many traditional materials like paper (bags), wood (stir sticks, residential siding and windows), glass (jars), metal (pipes, elbows and many other plumbing products) and wool (polyester).

Most plastics have two things in common.  First, they are made of very long and strong chains of carbon atoms.  The different properties of different plastics – rigidity, flexibility, fire resistance, UV stability and more – are the result of a variety of additive molecules attached to those strong carbon chains.

Second, virtually all plastics are derived from oil or natural gas.  

Terrible plastic

For all the good they do, plastics have an enormous dark side too.

First, they have a huge carbon footprint.  It takes three times as much energy to produce a kilogram of plastic from petroleum as it does to produce a kilogram of iron from iron ore.  A 2009 US study found that producing only the plastic water bottles used annually in that country took the energy equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil – and water bottles are only a fraction of the total amount of plastic produced annually.

Second, because there are so many different types of plastic, collecting and sorting it for proper recycling is a daunting challenge.  It’s an unfortunate reality that only a small percentage of the plastic we use actually gets collected for recycling.  It’s another unfortunate reality that, because most plastic collected for recycling is a mixture of different plastics, it can’t be remanufactured into the same products and is instead ‘downcycled’ into inferior products like carpet and park benches.  (One exception: number 4 plastics, which include grocery bags, milk bags and bread bags, is recycled into similar new products if the collected material is not contaminated with other types of plastic.)

Third, the same chemical structure that makes plastics so useful – that strong carbon chain – makes them persist a long, long time.  Exposed to sunlight and the elements, many plastics get brittle and shatter into tiny pieces (if you’ve ever participated in a beach or roadside cleanup, you’ve seen this firsthand) – but those tiny pieces, even the ones too small to be visible to the human eye, are still plastic.  Increasingly, plastic particles are washing or blowing into our oceans; recent water samples taken off the BC coast contained up to 25,000 particles per cubic meter.  Ocean dwellers are mistaking plastic for food, and plastic is now showing up in the seafood we eat.  So are chemicals like Bisphenol A, a plastics additive suspected of causing numerous health problems. 

What to do

Here’s how you can help reduce plastic’s downside:

  • Challenge yourself to use only cloth or other reusable shopping bags; no more plastic. 
  • When you shop, avoid products with excessive or unrecyclable packaging.  In particular, avoid plastics with a recycling symbol and the number 7; they belong to a catch-all class of plastics that is so diverse it’s essentially unrecyclable.
  • Don’t litter – and consider going one better by participating in a roadside or beach cleanup.
  • Learn the plastic recycling symbols (Wikipedia has a great overview here), and recycle everything you can.  Recycling may be imperfect, but it’s still far better to put plastic into a recycle bin than into a landfill or ocean. 
  • Finally, why not lobby your leaders for mandatory, legible recycling symbols on all plastic products and packaging?  Europe and even China have systems far superior to ours.  And why not contact companies to ask for 100 per cent recyclability in their products and packaging?

Plastics are beautiful and terrible.  Let’s get the most out of the beautiful, but do our best to minimize the terrible.