Raw Materials: Essay

26 June 2019
What do you think of plastics? Until recently many people did not give plastics a second thought. Yet now they are much in the press widely condemned as polluters of rivers and creators of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It has become fashionable to try to go plastics free but how realistic is this? We have had plastics for over 150 years and for around a third of these more things and a greater range of things have been made of plastics than of any other materials group[i]. Plastics have become fundamental to the world we live in. Arguably, they have only taken such a strong hold because they have changed the world for better as well as for worse.

The story of manmade plastics began in East London with the invention of Parkesine, a form of cellulose nitrate. An announcement introducing the material in 1862 took particular pride in its ability to create ‘the most perfect imitation of Tortoise-shell, Woods, and an endless variety of effects.’[ii] This statement draws attention to one of plastics’ outstanding characteristics: their unusual versatility. Plastics have no intrinsic form or texture, thus they are not materials that can be true to themselves in the sense promulgated by such design leaders as William Morris[iii]. This may have contributed to their reputation as deceitful and thus undesirable materials but their compensating factor is that, given the appropriate research, they can be whatever you want them to be and perform in ways no other materials can. It is noteworthy, in the light of the current focus on the damage plastics are doing to wildlife, that in their early days this characteristic was often used to imitate precious natural materials with a view, precisely, to saving endangered species. Indeed, the development of a similar material, known as celluloid, in the USA is said to have been motivated by a reward of $10,000 for the discovery of a material that could take the place of ivory in the manufacture of billiard balls[iv] (1). Two further early East London factories, the Ivoride Works and British Xylonite had, respectively, an elephant[v] and an elephant and tortoise walking arm in arm[vi], as their trademarks (2). 

(1) Snooker ball, Parkesine, 1860s 
Plastics Historical Society PHSL : PAR 119

(2) Xylonite advertisement with Xylonite detachable collar both showing the Xylonite trademark, 1930s. MoDiP AIBDC : 006061 & AIBDC : 006062 

Plastics have gone on to be beneficial in many other ways. For example, they have been a significant democratising force: celluloid film transformed photography from a gentleman’s art requiring expensive paraphernalia into an egalitarian medium that gave rise to the family snap[vii]. Music has been made more accessible initially through shellac, a natural plastic, then vinyl records and more recently through polycarbonate CDs. Even now that digital recordings are becoming the norm, vinyl sales are growing year on year[viii] Renowned designer, Philippe Starck, sees plastics as the material for his leading edge designs: ‘I always want to make things more and more affordable. I want to reach the maximum I can, for everybody. Only mass-produced plastic objects can do this (3).[ix]

(3) Miss Sissi lamp designed by Philippe Starck and made by Flos from polycarbonate, about 1999 MoDiP AIBDC : 001351
Even some single use plastics have some advantages over traditional materials. The fourth largest use of plastics is for medical purposes[x]. Disposable syringes(4), intravenous blood bags and urine continence and ostomy products are now made of plastics. Some make the case for sterilising equipment but this uses huge amounts of water and energy. Plastics also enable life-saving procedures, which would just not otherwise be possible[xi]. There is a case also for plastics packaging. Food wraps are formulated in a myriad of different ways in response to the specific needs of different fruit and vegetables to keep them fresh for longer. A shrink-wrapped cucumber can last up to three times longer than an unwrapped one[xii].

(4) Non reusable syringe, designed by Marc Andrew Kosca in 2001 and made in polypropylene under licence by Hindustan Syringes & Medical Devices Ltd. about 2011 
MoDiP AIBDC : 008069.2
Furthermore there are ways in which plastics directly make for a more sustainable world. Only 4% of global oil production is used for plastics compared to 87% for transport, energy and heating, which is simply burnt and lost[xiii]. The lightness of plastics provides a real benefit in terms of fuel consumption. For example, for the same amount of bags, it takes one lorry to deliver plastic and seven to deliver paper bags[xiv]. Nowadays plastics make up about 50% of a vehicle’s volume but only about 10% of its weight[xv]. Imagine how much heavier and thus, how much more fuel these vehicles would use, if they were made only from traditional materials, and, of course, more fuel means higher exhaust emissions. 
Undeniably another side of plastics exists. Plastics present a paradox: they enable almost everything we do whilst, at the same time, being leading contributors to potential environmental catastrophe. However, the problem with plastics is not the material itself but rather human behaviour. Plastics are the only totally manmade materials group. Therefore, more than is the case with any other material, responsibility from their inception to their disposal lies with us.

Increasingly there are significant pockets of research into environmentally friendly plastics materials. They include exploring ways to make plastics made from fossil fuels, currently the majority, biodegradable and sourcing plastics from biomass, that is renewable feedstocks, for example crops. However both give rise to controversy. Biodegradable plastics are frequently only biodegradable in commercial composting units yet their biodegradable status makes people feel they can throw them away wherever they are; and there is an argument that land should be used to grow food not plastics. If either biodegradable or biomass plastics get into recycling systems they can undermine the recycled plastics produced and if they go to landfill they release methane, an environmentally damaging greenhouse gas, as they decay[xvi]. There is a movement also towards responsible design, for example using as few plastics materials in a product as possible; and ensuring the different plastics can be identified and easily separated to facilitate their disposal into different recycling streams. However these initiatives are largely reliant for their effectiveness on the responsible disposal of the resulting products and currently there is no joined up strategy for recycling even within the UK, let alone the world at large. This is the challenge. Governments need collaboratively to support research into ways of designing into plastics materials and products, at the concept stage, disposal mechanisms that create value rather than devastation for the environment. They also need to work together to make recycling effective. Would not the plastics-free movement be so much more effective if it were to re-direct its efforts to lobbying governments in this respect?

Professor Susan Lambert,
Museum of Design in Plastics, Arts University Bournemouth

[i] Cascini, G. and Rissone, P. 2004. ‘Plastics Design: Integrating TRIZ
Creativity and Semantic Knowledge Portals’, Journal of Engineering
Design 15(4): 405–24.

[ii] Parkesine, Plastics Historical Society, http://plastiquarian.com/?page_id=14375, accessed 31 March 2019.

[iii] Arts & Crafts, William Morris Gallery, https://www.wmgallery.org.uk/collection/themes/arts-and-crafts/, accessed 31 March 2019.

[iv] Jeffrey Meikle, American Plastic: a Cultural History, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995: 10.

[v] Ivoride sample with trademark, https://www.modip.ac.uk/artefact/phsl-x12-0, Accessed 31 March 2019.

[vi] Poster and collar bearing the trademark, https://www.modip.ac.uk/artefact/aibdc-006061, accessed 31 March 2019.

[vii] Stephen Fenichell, Plastic: the Making of A Synthetic Century, New York: HarperCollins, 1996: 53-63.

[viii] Matthew Leimkuehler, Vinyl Sales Continued To Grow In 2018, Report Says,

imkuehler/2019/01/07/vinyl-sales-grow-2018-buzzangle-beatles-kendrick-lamar-queen-album-sales/#26b72c79775a, accessed 31March 2019.

[ix] 23.06.15 Material Tendencies: Philippe Starck.

https://www.architonic.com/en/story/anita-hackethal-material-tendencies-philippe-starck/7001128, accessed 31 March 2019.

[x] Michael Szycher, High Performance Biomaterials: A Complete Guide to Medical and Pharmaceutical Applications, 1991: 3. Published as ebook 2017:

https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9781351440967, accessed 31 March 2019.

[xi] Craftech Industries, The many uses of plastic materials in medicine, http://www.craftechind.com/the-many-uses-of-plastic-materials-in-medicine/, accessed 31 March 2019.

[xii] The Cucumber Problem: Is Shrink Wrapping that Bad?, 9 April 2018, Ecoveritas, http://www.ecoveritas.com/the-cucumber-problem-is-shrink-wrapping-that-bad/, accessed 31 March 2019.

[xiii] British Plastics Federation, Oil consumption, https://www.bpf.co.uk/press/Oil_Consumption.aspx, accessed 31 March 2019.

[xiv] British Plastics Federation, Plastic packaging and the environment, https://www.bpf.co.uk/packaging/environment.aspx, accessed 31 March 2019.

[xv] Maria Jerin, Importance of plastics in automotive, https://www.industr.com/en/importance-of-plastics-in-automotive-2333664, accessed 31 March 2019.

[xvi] Museum of Design in Plastics, Biomass, https://www.modip.ac.uk/exhibitions/revolution-environmentally-conscious-design-plastics/biomass and Biodegradable, https://www.modip.ac.uk/exhibitions/revolution-environmentally-conscious-design-plastics/biodegradable, accessed 31 March 2019.