Life before plastic

Stewart Brand sums up Susan Freinkel's Long Now talk: "What Common Objects Used to Be Made Of," a history of the world before plastic:

“Bakelite was invented in 1907 to replace the beetle excretion called shellac (“It took 16,000 beetles six months to make a pound of shellac.”), and was first used to insulate eletrical wiring. Soon there were sturdy Bakelite radios, telephones, ashtrays, and a thousand other things. The technology democratized consumption, because mass production made former luxury items cheap and attractive. The 1920s and ‘30s were a golden age of plastic innovation, with companies like Dow Chemical, DuPont, and I. G. Farben creating hundreds of new varieties of plastic for thrilled consumers. Cellophane became a cult. Nylons became a cult. A plastics trade show in 1946 had 87,000 members of the public lining up to view the wonders. New fabrics came along—Orlon and Dacron—as colorful as the deluge of plastic toys—Barbie, the Frisbee, Hula hoops, and Silly Putty.

“Looking for new markets, the marketers discovered disposability—disposable cups for drink vending machines, disposable diapers (“Said to be responsible for the baby boom“), Bic lighters, soda bottles, medical syringes, and the infinite market of packaging. Americans consume 300 pounds of plastic a year. The variety of plastics we use are a problem for recycling, because they have to be sorted by hand. They all biodegrade eventually, but at varying rates. New bio-based polymers like “corn plastic” and “plant bottles” have less of a carbon footprint, but they biodegrade poorly. Meanwhile, thanks to the efficiencies of fracking, the price of natural gas feedstock is plummeting, and so is the price of plastic manufacture.

What Common Objects Used to Be Made Of

(Image: Plastic Power, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from fxtreme's photostream)

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