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Can we live without plastic?

Last week I went to a program at the National Building Museum, Life After Plastic, during which panelists discussed the impact of rising oil prices on the cost of plastic building materials; the life cycle of plastic; health and environmental concerns; and new product materials such as soy, corn and mushrooms.

Moderator Lance Hosey, president and CEO of GreenBlue (a nonprofit focused on sustainable design and production in business and industry) started off the discussion by telling us that we produce some 300 billion pounds of plastic a year, in highly toxic and dangerous petro-chemical plants. Less than 5 percent of plastic is recycled, he said; other than the small amount of plastic that has been incinerated, every piece of plastic ever made still exists today.

Later he told us, “We spend so much time agonizing over making better [water] bottles—how is it sourced, how is it made–instead of asking: Why are we shipping water from France to begin with? Why are we carrying [them] around to begin with?”

As I listened to the panelists, I sat on a plastic chair, typed on a plastic laptop with a plastic clip in my hair, plastic sunglasses on my head, and a plastic cell phone, a plastic pen and a plastic-filled wallet in my bag. Will plastic ever disappear? Here’s what the experts had to say:

Blaine Brownell
Assistant Professor
University of Minnesota School of Architecture

There are a lot of plastics that come from oil, but… we’re increasingly seeing plastics that come from renewable material. And I think scientists and architects are becoming more aware of what happens after that first life of a product.

One of my favorite [alternative materials] comes from a company called Ecovative Design. MycoBond (used to replace foam) and MycoPly (used to replace balsawood) are made from agricultural waste and mushrooms. They’re very fringe—it’s rudimentary uses now: packaging, shipping. There’s also some companies making things from invasive plants. PIE (Project Import Export, Inc.) uses water hyacinth to make wicker furniture. But it’s interesting to think about the process by which they’re created—the method has changed. You’re calling and ordering a product, and the manufacturer starts growing it instead of manufacturing it.

There’s certainly red flags [about materials] today, versus my first naïve career as an architect, where I’d just grab things off the shelves. There’s increased demand for [sustainable building products], but as architects, it’s not easy. If, for example, it comes from a place where chain of custody is sketchy, it can have the greenest chemistry but not be the green product we’re looking for.

What I teach students: It seems we have to embark on a new era of really creative solutions that are adaptive reuse-focused.

In terms of the technology, we can create plastics from renewable materials. There are a lot of different sugars from which we’re getting bioplastics. Dr. Wool from the University Delaware said the industry is moving like gangbusters toward a time when we move away from polyurethane, and it’ll be more tied with the agriculture tradition.

There’s an interesting issue about durability in the physical environment and the desire for that–like what vinyl siding does so well–versus the fear factor that we don’t want [the plastic around forever]. There’s this strange conflict that emerges. I’m asked about biodegradation, which we want in some cases (we want the water bottle to biodegrade), but what about buildings? We don’t want those to biodegrade. [We need to think about the] time scale to design: So is this a 100-year building or 25-year building? There’s so much emphasis on up –front first use.

Jay Bolus
Vice President of Technical Operations

Alternatives to petroleum based plastic: Corn-based, cellulose-based, soy based, sugar based. Polyethylene is one of the greener plastics; it can actually be made from sugar cane.

To me, the building block is not as important as what happens at the end—if we keep throwing things into the landfill or incinerator we’ll never [make progress]. I don’t really feel like the problem is the [materials]; it’s more end of life.

There’s not a one-size-fits-all plastic. Maybe sugar cane makes sense in certain regions of the world, but we’re going to need a whole suite of solutions. In some cases, it might make sense to use sugar cane; or to use petroleum-based plastic; or to switch to steel and aluminum.

Recycling came about as a waste management strategy; it’s not about reusing materials. You can mandate it, but until you start looking at it that way [as a valuable material] I don’t think any of these programs will really work.

Robert Peoples
American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute

I think plastic is going to be with us for a long time. I’m believer in evolution: We have to evolve, increasing our understanding over time. We’re beginning to understand how these synthetic materials interact with living systems. I think you have to dig very deep to understand all the issues when you talk about materials. There are many kinds of plastic. So the big challenge for us is: Can we develop materials that are benign by design and derived by something other than petroleum?

Green chemistry is all about thinking about end of life considerations before you design the molecule and put it into the environment. If you apply these design principles up front, you would know if it’s not a good molecule.

The goal [in green chemistry] is to reduce or eliminate the hazardous materials or products. It’s a proven systems approach. We have hundreds of regulations in the U.S. that deal with chemicals. If you can apply the principals of green chemistry, you won’t need regulations.

There are zero federally funded green chemistry centers in the U.S. China is a mess environmentally right now, but China gets the fact that green chemistry is [the solution]; there are more than 20 green chemistry centers federally funded by China right now. They understand that they have created a crisis, and they are going to invent their way out of that crisis. The sad thing is that we’re paying for it–it’s our appetite for all of these disposable materials.

Our goal is to always get greener. There are plastics that are greener than others. There’s probably nothing out there that we’d call truly green, but manmade materials, most derived from oil today, will fall across some spectrum of green.

I would say it’s not just transiting from petroleum-based to bio-based. The first thing we have to do is make people aware that alternatives exist, and then we can provide education and information. Then we have the economy of scale, and then we’ll make progress. We are making progress, it’s just slower than some of us would like to see it.

We buy 30 to 50 billion [PET bottles] in the U.S. We recycle about 25. The others get sent to the landfill.

We can’t achieve a sustainable society by the linear expansion of the existing technologies we have. We’ll have to do things differently and pay a little more if we want to make changes, and we can’t be myopic about it. What works as a good solution where they have a lot of sugar cane in Brazil may not work in Sydney or san Francisco.

We must get the economics right. Society has to bear the cost of sustainability. We’ve kind of had a free ride–when you’re done with something you throw it away. But we know there’s no such thing as “away,” because you can’t destroy matter. We’ve been throwing things away not worrying about where “away” is, and “away” is coming back to haunt us.


Annual IAPD Plastics Convention and Showcase

57th Annual IAPD Convention & Plastics Showcase
September 30 – October 2, 2013
Miami, FL, USA
The 2013 IAPD Convention & Plastics Showcase in South Beach was a huge success. Thank you to everyone who attended and helped sponsor the event.

Plastic: Too Good to Throw Away

SINCE the 1930s, when the product first hit the market, there has been a plastic toothbrush in every American bathroom. But if you are one of the growing number of people seeking to purge plastic from their lives, you can now buy a wooden toothbrush with boar’s-hair bristles, along with other such back-to-the-future products as cloth sandwich wrappers, metal storage containers and leather fly swatters.

The urge to avoid plastic is understandable, given reports of toxic toys and baby bottles, seabirds choking on bottle caps and vast patches of ocean swirling with everlasting synthetic debris. Countless bloggers write about striving — in vain, most discover — to eradicate plastic from their lives. “Eliminating plastic is one of the greenest actions you can do to lower your eco-footprint,” one noted while participating in a recent online challenge to be plastic-free.

Is this true? Shunning plastic may seem key to the ethic of living lightly, but the environmental reality is more complex.

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.” Bakelite, the first true synthetic plastic, was developed a few decades later to replace shellac, then in high demand as an electrical insulator. The lac bugs that produced the sticky resin couldn’t keep up with the country’s rapid electrification.

Today, plastic is perceived as nature’s nemesis. But a generic distaste for plastic can muddy our thinking about the trade-offs involved when we replace plastic with other materials. Take plastic bags, the emblem for all bad things plastic. They clog storm drains, tangle up recycling equipment, litter parks and beaches and threaten wildlife on land and at sea. A recent expedition researching plastic pollution in the South Atlantic reported that its ship had trouble setting anchor in one site off Brazil because the ocean floor was coated with plastic bags.

Such problems have fueled bans on bags around the world and in more than a dozen American cities. Unfortunately, as the plastics industry incessantly points out, the bans typically lead to a huge increase in the use of paper bags, which also have environmental drawbacks. But the bigger issue is not what the bags are made from, but what they are made for. Both are designed, absurdly, for that brief one-time trip from the store to the front door.

In other words, plastics aren’t necessarily bad for the environment; it’s the way we tend to make and use them that’s the problem.

It’s estimated that half of the nearly 600 billion pounds of plastics produced each year go into single-use products. Some are indisputably valuable, like disposable syringes, which have been a great ally in preventing the spread of infectious diseases like H.I.V., and even plastic water bottles, which, after disasters like the Japanese tsunami, are critical to saving lives. Yet many disposables, like the bags, drinking straws, packaging and lighters commonly found in beach clean-ups, are essentially prefab litter with a heavy environmental cost.

And there’s another cost. Pouring so much plastic into disposable conveniences has helped to diminish our view of a family of materials we once held in high esteem. 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.

In a world of nearly seven billion souls and counting, we are not going to feed, clothe and house ourselves solely from wood, ore and stone; we need plastics. And in an era when we’re concerned about our carbon footprint, we can appreciate that lightweight plastics take less energy to produce and transport than many other materials. Plastics also make possible green technology like solar panels and lighter cars and planes that burn less fuel. These “unnatural” synthetics, intelligently deployed, could turn out be nature’s best ally.

Yet we can’t hope to achieve plastic’s promise for the 21st century if we stick with wasteful 20th-century habits of plastic production and consumption. We have the technology to make better, safer plastics — forged from renewable sources, rather than finite fossil fuels, using chemicals that inflict minimal or no harm on the planet and our health. We have the public policy tools to build better recycling systems and to hold businesses accountable for the products they put into the market. And we can also take a cue from the plastic purgers about how to cut wasteful plastic out of our daily lives.

We need to rethink plastic. The boar’s-hair toothbrush is not our only alternative.

Susan Freinkel is the author of the forthcoming “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.”


The History of Plastics