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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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.

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