Fantastic plastic

English: Blue plaque commemorating Alexander P...

English: Blue plaque commemorating Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first plastic, in Birmingham, England. Photographed by me 18 September 2006. Oosoom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to think of a material more prolific than plastic. The keys on my keyboard, carrier bags, ballpoint pens, the remote control for the TV and most car interiors are made almost entirely from plastic. The world gets through nearly 300 million tonnes of the stuff every year which has environmentalists up in arms. After all, the plastic we make is so resilient that it doesn’t tend to conveniently rot away in landfill sites.

It’s a very real problem. Roughly half a trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In the UK, we use roughly 15 million plastic bottles each and every day and when you think that it takes 450 years for just one plastic bottle to break down, at any one time – that’s nearly 4.5 trillion bottles rotting away unless we recycle or burn them.

Our appetite for plastic is showing no signs of slowing with annual growth running at about 5% annually. Plastics are made from polymers – immensely complex molecules that link together hundreds of thousands of molecule structures known as monomers. The complex structure is the key to plastic’s versatility. It is flexible enough to be made into almost any shape and it is durable enough to have the strength for multiple applications.

Plastic began in the 1850s when a British man, Alexander Parkes began experimenting with organic cellulose and various different solvents before coming up with the very first plastic, christened “Parkestine”, which was on show at the Great Exhibition in London in 1962. Unfortunately, his product was flawed, it was highly flammable which limited applications somewhat.

Development of the substance continued with an American coming up with Bakelite in the early 1900s. A Swiss chemist, Jacques E. Brandenberger then came up with cellophane by mixing viscose in an acid bath. The word cellophane was voted the third most beautiful word in the English language (after mother and memory) in 1940. I don’t think it would rank quite so highly today.

I can’t help feeling that plastic is both a blessing and a curse. The material is so damned useful that it is absolutely ubiquitous. At the same time, the stuff is so hard to dispose of that every single piece causes us long-term headaches. If you throw away everything in your house that contains plastic, it’s unlikely you’d have much left.

Alternatives are slowly becoming available and not before time. Traditional plastics are highly reliant on petrochemicals whilst the newer, greener alternatives use materials such as corn starch and wood. The quicker we adopt such materials, the quicker we can have our cake and eat it (or maybe store it in an eco-friendly Tupperware container).

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What will archeologists make of the here and now?

trowel

trowel (Photo credit: turtlemoon)

It has been a while since I visited the dump – sorry, municipal waste processing plant. The last time I was there, all the metal containers were for household waste. You parked up, selected the container closest to the car, and lugged everything you wanted to dispose of up the metal stairs and over the side. Today, things have changed. The first clue is the name. It has changed to the household waste recycling centre. The second clue is the sign outside which explains what goes where.

No longer is every container for household waste. There is but one such container and it has a guardian. Many climbed the steps to the household waste container, but few were deemed worthy by the guardian. They were dismissed with such mystical words as “no mate – electrical” or “sorry mate – that’s timber”.

Sometimes I thought he was being cruel by waiting until the poor soul had struggled up the steps with something particularly heavy or awkward before making his assessment. But no – he took his job very seriously and sometimes he needed a closer look before deciding whether to consider the item worthy of entry into his household waste container.

It was a bit bewildering at first, but the operatives were incredibly patient and when asked (for what must have been the hundredth time that day) where something went, they politely pointed in the right direction. I’m all in favour of anything that makes our meagre resources go further and the less stuff that ends up as landfill, the better.

If we get really good at this though, the future archeologists of the world are going to struggle. I once took a part-time archeology course and they live or die based on what they manage to dig out of the ground. If we become so efficient that we recycle absolutely everything, there will be nothing to dig up. I guess graffiti, the modern equivalent to cave painting might give them a few clues, but otherwise, they will be stumped.

It doesn’t help that so much of what we live and breathe is now digital either. Formats change so often that given enough time, any form of media will prove impossible to read. Books and paper degrade too, so it’s highly unlikely that an archeologist will be digging up a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey in a thousand years, although what they would make of a society who read such literature is hard to say.

The volume of data we produce and the rate at which it grows is unbelievable. We currently measure that data in exabytes, but how long until that becomes zettabytes or yottabytes is anyone’s guess. The ironic thing is that if we recycle everything and all media is left unreadable, a future archeologist might conclude that we were no more advanced that our stone age ancestors.