Plastic

A brief history.

By Fred Stenson

Plastic was the result of humanity’s long search for a material that could be bent back and forth without breaking. It’s a long history, but things moved quickly after Hermann Staudinger fathered polymer chemistry and won a Nobel Prize. Given that Herman Mark was the father of polymer physics, it’s surprising plastic wasn’t instead called “herman.”

Plastics are polymer chains, polymers being giant molecules that repeat smaller pieces called monomers. Each monomer has a “backbone with hanging pendants.” (There’s a real poetry to this.) To visualize a monomer, let’s imagine an aerial photo of a city suburb where Boomingtown Way is a backbone on which Boomingtown Close and Boomingtown Place are hanging pendants. Together they are a monomer. A higher aerial vantage shows these monomers linking and repeating to form a polymer chain called Boomingtown.

The most famous natural polymer is DNA: the double helix. Humans are just big polymers, really. But if you cause the reactions that build a polymer chain in a lab, you create a synthetic polymer (e.g., polypropylene). Because plastic polymers are made largely of hydrogen and carbon, the primary source of plastic is petrochemicals. Alberta’s petrochemical industry (at Joffre and Fort Saskatchewan, and more coming soon) is built on the back of our petroleum industry.

A more cultural way to look at plastic is to say it came of age in the early ’60s TV commercial where a woman dropped a Melmac plate on the floor—and it didn’t break! My recollection was that we got a free Melmac plate in a box of detergent and were able to replicate the experiment at home. Another milestone was the scene in The Graduate where Mr. McGuire says to disaffected Benjamin Braddock, “I just want to say one word to say to you. Just one word.” After a pregnant pause, McGuire divulges the word: “Plastics!”

Some people were alarmed when our DNA showed up as 6 per cent Neanderthal, but surely it’s much more serious to become some percentage plastic.

McGuire was right. Fortunes have been made from plastics. Plastics rule our life. To go one day without using plastic is all but impossible. It’s simply the cheapest and best packaging ever. It can be moulded into anything. Try an experiment. Go to your grocery store and force yourself to see only plastic. Everything from sushi to barbecued chicken is in a plastic shell. Blueberries and strawberries: same thing. In the toy stores, plastic toys come in plastic shells. I leave you to extrapolate.

What a success story! …until you learn about the five massive plastic islands or gyres floating in the world’s oceans; until you slip your guide on a tropical holiday and see a bay full of water bottles, condoms and diapers. Plastic takes 500 years to fully disintegrate, but much sooner it becomes little pieces that, sadly, smell like food to fish. Then we eat the fish. Another way we ingest plastic is by “migration” from containers into food. When we reuse plastic by storing leftovers in it, we increase the likelihood of more plastic becoming part of us.

With great prescience, Flann O’Brien wrote a novel in 1940 called The Third Policeman, in which Irish constables were spending so much time banging up and down on bicycles that a cellular-level exchange took place. Tiny bits of bicycle entered the constables and tiny bits of constables entered the bicycles—until, inevitably, constables began turning into bicycles, thus explaining why bikes disappear when left leaning on walls.

Something like this is happening to humans. Some were alarmed when our DNA showed up as 6 per cent Neanderthal, but surely it’s much more serious to become some percentage plastic.

So what can we do about plastic polluting and permeating us? The most prevalent answer, found in most cities, towns and households, is the blue bin. Recycling discarded plastic is very big now, and, when there are recycling conferences, the water bottle makers and huge retailers are there with their good intentions, vowing to recycle the mountains of plastic that they make and sell.

What happens after the blue bin is a thesis-sized topic. Suffice to say that your plastic bottle might be better travelled than you. It will be trucked to bigger and bigger recycling depots, then cross an ocean, perhaps. China still imports some recycled plastics in flake form. One plastic of which water bottles are made, PET, is highly popular in the recycling world, because it can become another water bottle. The people who make water bottles out of water bottles complain they’re not getting enough water bottles. Some louts are still throwing them away.

At the big recycling conferences, the talk has turned to incineration of less recyclable plastic—to create energy and heat! Since plastic is a petrochemical, composed mostly of carbon, can this be good? That is, for the overheated planet? However, it’s likely to happen on a wide scale. At the opposite end of things, where plastic is made and first used, it seems no one can really imagine turning back the clock to when we didn’t use plastic at all. Mention good old glass and you’re laughed at. “Get real, man. You can’t even throw that stuff on the floor!”

Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday). Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.

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