Plastic bags, plastic cutlery, plastic bottles, plastic food storage containers and more have been in the doghouse in recent years, often for good reason. Plastic overwhelms landfills and seems to last forever. There are also concerns about its detrimental effect on human health, especially when it's heated. Is there any redeeming quality to plastic? In spite of its associated health risks, plastic has revolutionized many areas of medicine and made living easier, cheaper and brighter in many ways.
The word plastic originally meant pliable and strong. Plastic is a polymer, a word that means "made of many parts." Each type of plastic is made up of different ingredients, including some found naturally in nature, like fossil fuels. It's these ingredients that give the polymer its flexibility, strength and other properties.
Plastic is indispensable in many of the items we use every day. It can be molded into many shapes and holds up well. We see it in cars, kayaks and parts of bikes, trains and airplanes. If we replaced these parts with metal, they would rust, and if replaced with leather it would be very expensive and not as durable. Think of how important computers are to our lives today. Every computer has many plastic parts. Plastic can be made tough enough to hold the mechanics that make computers work, yet small enough to keep the whole machine smaller and lighter. That translates to being more portable and cheaper than the old computers.
Plastic has enriched the way we live in our homes in both large and small ways. Houses are a major expenditure, but they would be even more expensive without plastic:
- Vinyl siding vs. brick: Brick can add $10,000 or more to the price of a new or pre-owned home.
- Vinyl vs. wood windows and trim: Vinyl is cheaper and maintenance free. Even with the best of care, wood eventually rots.
- Storage items: Plastic bins cost more than cardboard boxes but are more durable and don't attract insects. Plastic shelves are cheaper and lighter in weight than wood and metal.
Plastic has been a stand-in for other materials from its very beginning. Its first known appearance was in 1869, when a New York company offered $10,000 to anyone who could come up with a substitute for ivory, which was becoming scarce. John Wesley Hyatt found that treating cellulose with camphor produced a substance that imitated ivory, horn and tortoiseshell. When plastic is used in place of natural resources like ivory and wood, it helps prevent scarcity of these materials.
In the field of medicine, plastic has been responsible for many life-lengthening and even lifesaving inventions. Think about the artificial heart. It can replace a real heart, ventricles and valves, and last for years while a patient waits for an available heart transplant. Plastic has improved the ability to keep medical environments sterile through use of plastic exam gloves, syringes and IV bags. A highly durable plastic is used for parts of knee and hip replacements, pacemakers and other innovations.
In 2014, engineers at Stanford University developed an earthquake-resistant house by partially using plastic. Earthquakes cause a lot of expensive structural damage to houses because they move when the ground shakes. So engineers developed sliders made of steel and plastic that sit atop steel plates. The house sits on this structure, rather than being attached to a foundation, and slides back and forth instead of being shaken during an earthquake.
On the other hand, plastic's durability and longevity means it doesn't break down easily in landfills. Convenience items that are intended for single use, like plastic utensils, are meant to be tossed out. Those that can be recycled or reused, like flimsy water bottles and grocery plastic bags, are often thrown away instead. Reusable items like bowls, food storage containers and plastic mixing spoons and turners, melt or wear away with use, which doesn't occur with metal or glass. So those are thrown away, too.
And it isn't only landfills that are overflowing with plastic. Discarded plastic ends up in the oceans, as evidenced in the Pacific Ocean, which contains a garbage dump the size of Texas swirling far offshore. Discarded plastic also harms sea creatures that eat it or get stuck in it.
Although the ingredients differ in the many types of polymers, studies have shown that some may cause physical harm. The best known offender, BPA, has been linked so closely with cancer that many manufacturers have removed it from their plastic items and attached stickers proclaiming them to be BPA free. Other studies link the chemical to reproductive problems like infertility and fetal abnormalities.
Even as BPA is eliminated from plastics, there are other types in the same family that probably have similar effects and are considered to be most dangerous to pregnant women, fetuses and infants. Too few studies have been done to know if the plastics used in medical innovations leach any chemicals into the body or have other long-term effects.
Efforts to encourage people to recycle, repurpose and reuse plastic items have been somewhat successful. Most communities offer recycling for some, though not all, plastics. The internet abounds with ideas for ways to reuse plastic and other items instead of throwing them away. Many people are switching from plastic to glass for food storage. Word is getting around, too, that food shouldn't be heated in plastic or covered with plastic while microwaving, because chemicals can leach into food.
Meanwhile, scientists are working on making plastics biodegradable. One way is to mix the plastic with plant materials rather than fossil fuels. Another idea is to develop a process that will convert plastic back into the fossil fuel.