Amazing if you think about it. All of the plastic that exists in our lives: the plastic on your dashboard; in your kids toys; the shell containing your food processor…all of it will be here long after we’re gone, long after our kids are gone, long after our great grand kids are gone, and probably long after Keith Richards is gone. George Carlin made a joke about how a million years from now, when human beings are extinct, all that will be left to show we ever existed will be plastic tupperware. What a legacy.
Plastic came along during in the 1860’s when the demand for ivory-made pool balls pressured manufacturers to supply them, but this required killing large amounts of elephants in order to obtain their tusks. As an alternative, scientist John Wesley Hyatt created celluloid, one of the first thermoplastics that could be melted and molded to form thousands of shapes. Fast forward a hundred years, and we have thousands of different kinds of plastic materials that are increasingly omnipresent.
But as useful and ingenious as plastic has been over the decades, there is a flip side of the coin. Manufacturing plastic is resource-intensive and yields various destructive emissions that contribute to global warming and degradation of water quality. It’s made from non-renewable resources, and for the most part, it never biodegrades. Add to this the growing suspicion that plastic use may lead to serious health problems, there is a fierce urgency to find an alternative.
Interesting technologies to watch for
The emergence of “green polymers” or synthetic biodegradable resins -plastic produced from biological sources like vegetable oil, pea starch, or interestingly enough: bacteria, is changing the playing field. Consequentially some of these plastics can break down in as little as 12 weeks if surrounded with aerobic conditions (water and microbes). These plastics can be seen in both rigid and flexible packaging vehicles and can also be renewable if required.
Another interesting biopolymer is Polylactic acid or PLA which is being manufactured by Natureworks. PLA is derived from corn or sugarcane. I had the opportunity to design some packaging with Pacific Coast Feather (view here) who used Natureworks corn-fiber technology to synthesize bedding fill. What was fascinating about the compound was that it maintained the physical characteristics of natural fills and polyester synthetics but with superior performance. PLA is biodegradable as well as renewable.
Predictably, the big kicker is cost. Over time the production costs have lowered and will continue to lower as the technology proliferates. But sadly, North America lags behind the curve in regards to embracing this technology because it tends to be more expensive. It will be interesting to see with rising oil costs, if these bio technologies can compete with petroleum based polymers purely on price.