THE Molding of the WORLD!

Once the butt of jokes,

 plastics have infiltrated every corner of modern life.


by: Joannie Fischer

History of Plastic

E verybody gets the joke when the tacky party guest in the classic film The Graduate makes young Ben promise to consider a career in , of all things, plastics. Since 1967, the scene has endured as a symbol of the dehuman-izing superficiality of modern life, and the word “plastic” has morphed into an insult, connoting things false, fake, meaningless, cheap, etc.

YET, if Ben had ventured into the world of plastics - - - - he would have surely discovered endeavors worthy of humanity’s loftiest ideals. Not only does The Graduate itself owe its existence to the plastic film it is recorded on, but by the time the scene was shot, plastics were already shaping history. Sophisticated new materials would emerge to save lives (artificial hearts, shatterproof glass, bullet-proof vests ,etc.) Conserve energy, (home insulation, light-weight cars), and expand human horizons (around the globe via aircraft, across the solar system via spacecraft, and through the world-wide web via computers). And in the 21st century, a new generation of “super synthetics” promises to again reshape the world and ease many of the planet’s most pressing problems.

Medieval alchemists never did successfully brew up gold, but modern chemists tinkering with the elements indeed yield priceless materials. By taking simple basic building blocks of matter such as carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen, and putting them through rigors not normally endured on this earth, today’s alchemists create substances never seen in nature, with otherworldly qualities. Agents such as chemical catalysts, intense heat or cold, and massive pressure can coax simple, small molecules to break up and rearrange their components into a polymer–a huge, complex “mega molecule” arranged in a long, highly ordered chain. Plastic, from the Greek root “to form,” refers to any of these polymers that can be molded to hold a desired shape. To date, hundreds of different polymers have been created —some feather light but stronger than steel, others impervious to scorching heat or arctic freeze—and new plastics are in the works with even more impossible qualities, such as the ability to “heal” themselves and “remember” to change shape and function in varying conditions.

Self Healing Plastic

These sophisticated polymers promise to remold life dramatically. In medicine, researchers say plastics can extend life by 20 years by acting as mini-robots to repair organ damage and clean blood vessels, and as vehicles speeding treatments like chemotherapy to their target. Promethean polymers will allow roads to alter their surfaces in ice or rain and walls to become thicker or more porous to insulate or ventilate. Plastics that mimic natural polymers in the brain will yield anocomputers thousands of times more powerful than today’s machines.

The result is a world where plastics are ubiquitous and essential. Each year, more than 100 million tons of plastics are made; the United States produces more plastic than steel, aluminum, and copper combined. Although purists continue to disparage plastic—Norman Mailer calls it “a malign force loose in the universe that is the social equivalent of cancer”—few would actually want to do without it. True, the mention of plastic can conjure up images of phony pink flamingos, discarded soda bottles, and gaudy souvenir shop tchotchkes, but in fact life as we now enjoy it would be impossible without lab-born polymers.

Just consider plastic by a few of its other names: Teflon, nylon, rayon, polar fleece, Plexiglas, Lucite, Lycra, Formica, Velcro, vinyl, Gore-Tex, saran, Styrofoam, celluloid, cellophane, and polycarbonate. It is a key component of today’s computers, cell-phones, and jets. It encapsulates our medicines, ensures sterile surgeries, and provides our artificial organs and limbs. It is found in our alarm clocks, shower curtains, contact lenses, and clothing; in our TVs, cookware, and sofas. Even the Statue of Liberty is coated in a polymer that protects it from corrosion.

Replacing nature. The fact that not a single plastic item was found aboard the Titanic, sunk in 1912, gives some idea of how fast the breakthroughs have happened and how massive their repercussions have been. With each new material concocted, stumbled upon, or lucked into, entire industries have been born or transformed. Since the dawn of industrialization, a serious hunt was on for natural resource substitutes: “ivory” that wouldn’t require slaughtering elephants, “wood” that wouldn’t rot, “metal” that wouldn’t corrode. Bizarre odors and the sounds of small explosions came from labs around the world as brave souls mixed recipes including sulfur, gunpowder, acids, petroleum wastes, alcohol, even cream cheese and chicken soup.

The first huge breakthrough was the product of a phenol and formaldehyde mixture, pressurized and heated to over 200 degrees Celsius. Introduced to the United States in 1909 as Bakelite by backyard chemist “Doc” Leo Baekeland from Yonkers, N.Y., the world’s first totally synthetic plastic was a durable material that could be molded into everything from ashtrays to airplane propellers. Bakelite became the new “ivory” of billiard balls, formed the classic black dial telephone, and replaced metal agitators in washing machines. By the 1930s more than 90,000 tons of Bakelite were produced yearly.

But it was World War II that placed plastics at the center of necessity. Dire shortages of natural resources made synthetics crucial. A rubber substitute called vinyl supplied Allied troops with waterproof tents and boots. An ultra-light insulation called polyethylene gave the British the ability to install radar on planes and ships —and a critical advantage over the otherwise superior German Air Force and Navy. And a cousin of Plexiglas, a liquid polymer added to Russian fuel, kept tanks and vehicles running in sub-zero temperatures when Nazi engines broke down.

In peacetime, the military synthetics quickly found new uses. The nylon that had been used for parachutes set off arguably the world’s largest fashion craze by becoming more valuable than silk as ladies’ leggings. Teflon that lined military fuel tanks made space exploration possible, and spawned dozens of new plastics that would outfit astronauts and their vessels. By 1979, plastic production surpassed that of steel, ushering in what Stephen Fenichell, author of Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century, calls the PlastieAge, a title as indicative of human progress as the Iron Age or the Bronze Age. Long-lasting superplastics are fast replacing metal in buildings, machines, and vehicles. Virtually all of the data of the Information Age are stored on plastic, from computer components to DVDs.

Backlash. Yet, as plastic has become more dominant, the backlash against it has grown more visceral and vehement. The very endurance for which plastic was celebrated now haunts it. It is “the Rasputin of modern materials,” says Feniehell. “You can break it, chop it, dice it, shred it, burn it, and bury it, but it stubbornly refuses to die.”

Even the plastics industry admits waste is a big problem, and a sub-industry of “green plastics” is trying to make plastics mortal. McDonald’s restaurants in Chicago now serve Big Macs in plastic made from potato and limestone, which can be crushed and dissolved in water. Others are marketing plastic items that break down in moist soil; some are guaranteed to vanish in six weeks.

Only a third of durable plastics now find a second life. The numbers are rising, though, especially as companies such as Reebok, L.L. Bean, and Patagonia are launching large recycling operations that shred plastics, spin them into thread-thin “microfibers,” and weave them into fashionable slacks, jackets, fleece vests, and shoes. The newest plastics hold out the promise of never needing to be thrown away, thanks to self-healing mierocapsules inside the material itself. When cracked open by injury or age, the materials would release a fresh supply of the polymers to refortit say, the bumper of a car or the nose of a 747.

Before long, plastic may transform its image from ceo-villain to environmental hero, thanks to “smart’ plastics now in development. These could allow vehicles to eliminate ozone-depleting emissions and help windows store and make use of the sun’s heat. Perhaps by then, the name itself will morph from a pejorative jab into a genuine compliment..


                                                                        U. S..NEWS & WORLD REPORT

                                                                                      June 25, 2001. (Pgs. 45-48)

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