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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Sea birds off the coast of Mauritania.

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

The first thing you see when you walk into the Burke Museum's new exhibit, "Plastics Unwrapped," is a wall of old plastic shopping bags, lacking only a breeze to pile up against some grimy wall under the viaduct. You also see a heap of marine flotsam: old fishing net, eroded Styrofoam flotation, a dead harbor seal that got tangled in a net and a baggie filled with the plastic bottle caps that were extracted from albatross stomachs back in 1966. And then there's the stack of huge monitors, a stripped-down circuit board and other electronic detritus. Alaina Smith, the Burke's director of external affairs, hopes this first impression isn't too negative.

It isn't. In fact, the new exhibit generously showcases the upside of its subject. There are artificial legs (100 percent plastic) and a photograph of a legless sprinter blasting down a track on a pair of plastic limbs. Another photo shows the Plexiglass nose of a B-17 bomber from World War II. Exhibit text describes Boeing's more recent 787 Dreamliner; nearly half its frame is made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic and other composites. A timeline of plastic development starts with the introduction of Bakelite in 1909 — the year of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition — and highlights plenty of products such as Lyrca, Teflon and Velcro that we might rather not have to do without.

A few examples of composite structures would have made a nice addition. A fiberglass kayak or, say, the front clip of a vintage Corvette. (The Burke tried—for two years—and failed to secure a chunk of the Dreamliner from Boeing, which is an exhibit sponsor.) I would also have included the oddly central role of billiards.

[Digression Alert: A couple hundred years ago, billiard balls were all made of ivory, and by the 1860s, the sources of that ivory (a.k.a. elephants) had been hunted almost to extinction. Then along came John Wesley Hyatt, an upstate New York printer, who saved the elephants by developing a celluloid ball — yes, the same substance classically used for motion picture film. Hyatt’s wood-fiber-based billiard ball was arguably the first thermoplastic, but it had an unfortunate habit of bursting into flame. Leo Hendrik Baekeland (working in his lab in Yonkers, New York) subsequently invented the less-combustible Bakelite, recognized as the first true plastic, was also used for billiard balls. Other uses — see the black two-piece telephone with the heavy receiver in the Burke exhibit — soon followed.]

The Burke believes its plastics show "explains how material culture has changed," including "why [plastics are] so convenient and beneficial," and how they will "stay in landfills and oceans for hundreds, if not thousands, of years." Museum officials hope that the show will encourage people to rethink the way we use plastics, and that it will be a good way to kick off a rebranding of the Burke; the museum explains in a December press release that its "vision is to inspire people to value the connection between all life — and act accordingly." Translation: It isn't just a place to see dinosaur fossils anymore, although they are certainly there.

How the public will respond to the Burke’s new show and to the shift in emphasis remains to be seen. But museums in other cities are clamoring for "Plastics Unwrapped." Sight-unseen, five have already lined up to host the show after it leaves Seattle.

The exhibit is unusually conceptual, rather than visual. You have to read the text to learn about plastic’s positives, or even to fully appreciate its negatives. Without reading — and doing the math — you wouldn't know, for example, that a tin can flattened and buried, as conscientious hikers did, at the time of the Seattle World's Fair would be pretty well gone by now, but that a plastic container — had one been available — tossed by the Pilgrims after their first Thanksgiving would still be very much intact in the Plymouth soil. You'd also miss the trigger for the Age of Plastics: how their manufacture ramped up during World War II, and how after the war, with all that manufacturing capacity, corporations encouraged the idea of disposability to create markets for their products.

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.

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     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.

Hopkins uses the example of the styrofoam flotation supports under a typical Lake Union houseboat. Styrofoam may be a nasty substance, but it lasts. Something less nasty won't be very popular if it starts dissolving while you're still counting on it to keep your home afloat.

A lot of the bad stuff manufactured today certainly floats. The Burke's executive director, archaeologist Julie Stein, says that throughout history, tsunamis have periodically struck one Pacific coast or another, sweeping a variety of artifacts across 5,000 miles of open sea to the opposite shore. Artifacts of wood and metal have washed up on the Washington coast for millennia. The Makah Museum at Neah Bay has shards of copper that were taken from the ruins of the village at Ozette, which was buried by a mudslide in the 15th century. That copper could only have come from the ocean's western shore.

The tsunami that struck Japan last year was the first big one to hit since much of the wood and metal had been replaced by plastic. Most of the stuff that was washed out to sea hundreds of years ago probably sank. But a lot of today's stuff floats. And it isn't broken planks from wrecked junks or loose bits of copper. Most of it is plastic, great mounds and windrows of plastic crap.

Stein sees the archaeologists of the future having to dig down through endless feet of plastic detritus to find anything of interest. But she gives that a little perspective: In a Mediterranean country, one might dig through layers of busted ceramic to find anything of interest. In coastal Washington, one might dig through layers of discarded clam and oyster shells. Those shells basically never disintegrate, either.

The more things change. . .



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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.