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Plastics: Can't live with 'em, can't do without

From miracle prosthetics to mountains of electronic trash, the Burke's new "Unwrapped Plastics" exhibit explores the wonders and horrors of our plastic age.

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That backstory, so plausible — and so unconfirmed — isn't really documented in the show. It is true, however, that in 1955 Life published an article headlined "Disposable Living," which was illustrated by a composite photograph of mom, pop and daughter tossing a cornucopia of disposable products over their heads. "Disposable items cut down household chores," crowed Life. The magazine claimed that it would take 40 years to clean all the household objects in the photograph, but that no housewife would have to toil away at that task because all the items were disposable. A lot of the products pictured were made of paper or foil, rather than plastic, but that hardly mattered. Disposability had become — or was being touted as — an ideal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     Prosthetic legs circa 1940 (back) and today (front)
     Photo Courtesy of the Burke Museum

Disposability hasn't been an ideal for very long. Through most of human history, labor was relatively cheap and stuff was hard to come by. Look at some of the items in the before-plastic section of the exhibit: a woven cedar rain hat, waterproof sealskin boots, a child's seal-gut rain parka. Stuff like that took a lot of work. It wouldn't have been discarded lightly.

Paul Hopkins, who chairs the University of Washington chemistry department, told people at the exhibit's press preview that his family — like most American families at the time — had a phone that looked just like the black two-piece model in the “Plastics” show, although it was made of a plastic newer and lighter than Bakelite. In those days before the almost annual obsolescence of smart phones, the family expected that black telephone to last indefinitely. And it did. (Hopkins imagines it crushed but otherwise unaltered in some landfill.)

Every object has a useful life and then a longer physical life, Smith explains. The Burke is in the business of extending the physical lives of cultural artifacts. Plastics put the museum in a strange position: They are problem artifacts because in many cases they have short useful lives and very long physical ones.

Hopkins views all this not only as a concerned citizen who says he first wondered about the volume of waste generated by Americans when he was a boy in Indianapolis, but also as a chemist who understands the ways in which industrial labs have strung carbon molecules together. He hopes that when future generations look at some of the plastic crap we've generated they'll appreciate the complexity of the molecules, the sophistication of the chemistry that went into their creation.

But Hopkins also hopes the era of petroleum-based polymers will come to an end. He notes that some restaurants are already using plastic utensils that are plant-based and biodegradable. That technology still has a long way to go, he says, but biodegradable plastics made from plant-based or even insect-based monomers should be the wave of the future. After all, those little organisms that over millions of years turned into coal and oil fixed nitrogen from the air; living plants and some insects do the same. If the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere keeps rising, they'll presumably fix even more. (An upside of climate change?) We don’t need to wait millions of years for them to become fossil fuels; we can basically short-circuit the process by using the plants and insects directly.

Of course, Hopkins explains, there are caveats. We want these new plant- or insect-based products to work. A plastic spoon that sags when exposed to hot liquid won't attract many buyers even if it will biodegrade. And then there's the question of exactly when the process of biodegradation will start. You don't want it to start before you've finished your bowl of soup.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Jan 11, 11:07 a.m. Inappropriate

I saw this exhibit over the holidays, and was curious to see a teenager dialing the bakelite telephone, fascinated with the circular action of the dial. After spending an hour in the room, watching the filmclips and reading through some of the extra materials, she was still there when I left, dialing away!

I didn't realize that this was the beginning of a new initiative by the Burke, although I did feel that this exhibit was a change from their usual work. In some ways, I thought that this project, with its emphasis on the science of plastics, would have been a natural for the Pacific Science Center, but they too seem to be shifting in other directions.

sandik

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