2.29.2016

Plastic brings out the best and worst of people

I've been reading Plastic: a Toxic Love Story recently and I was hoping it would give me a better sense of which plastics are horrible and which plastics are mildly redeemable in our usage of them. (Maybe they off-gas less or are "cleaner" to make or are more recyclable.) So far it hasn't done much of that but it's still been a worthwhile read, featuring facets of plastic I hadn't thought about much. 

For instance, I had no idea that plastic (or early plastics like celluloid or resins) replaced the use of animal parts in so much -- insulation, billiard balls, combs, jewelry -- because it could mimic the look of a carapace, ivory, bug-based shellac, whatever and was easier to secure. Sweet - that's great less animals are dying to become "stuff" for people. As the types and qualities of plastics expanded, things got cheaper and more accessible and production abilities ramped up so now instead of your 1 comb, you could have a billion combs. (Or, more realistically, 10 combs.) But who needs 10 combs? With the ease of production, there's the question of stuff we "need" to produce so everyone can have a good quality of life (combs? medical supplies?) vs stuff we "want" to produce (billiard balls) where maybe the positives don't outweigh the negative impact of producing such an item. But no one is poised to make the judgement call but the manufacturers (looking to make a buck) and consumers (looking to make their lives better, whether based on aspiration, lesiure or convenience). 

Plastic is hard to avoid. In usage by us in daily life and in its aftermath - from the impossibility of recycling everything we use to how it impacts our world (sea life animals' guts clogged with plastic, Great Pacific Garbage Patch, etc. x 1,000). While there are benefits (sparing animals, hygienic medical supplies, sturdy plumbing or insulation products) it's still impossible not to think, "Wow, if we didn't buy so much junk, we wouldn't be pressed to find new materials to produce them. And if we didn't think we were entitled to everything, we wouldn't expect them to be on demand and cheap." 

Planned obsolescence is a part of this big plastic picture, although it doesn't have to be. The quote below struck me:


To call monobloc chairs unethical because they're flimsy and ugly and not because of what they're made out of struck me as funny, unreasonable, irresponsible. But the parameters that Fehlbaum values are design and quality, not whether the material itself is inherently bad for the environment. Things you will use and keep. There's still a ton of vintage Kartell kicking around (and probably plenty out of commission) but I wonder how often you hit that kind of design and quality luck? Or is that something that is made by us, by our culture? By the expectation that you keep and take care of the things you use instead of cycling through them.

It's the same with apparel, really. So many people go on shopping fasts or pare down their closets to an arbitrary number because that's really the only social construct we have right now that says "hey, this is a thing to do." While the fad of limiting our wardrobes is still on-going, it's less novel now. Hopefully some of us are keeping the "less is more" thought as a way to live. But it is not a societal norm yet for lots of reasons. We haven't reached that tipping point yet to have it become normal and I'm sure advertising, a pushback for aspirational luxury from the elite, convenience and the muddied mixed messaging of "get rid of your old non-eco stuff and replace it with all new" or "buy only the 'right' items for you and cull the rest" impossible holy grail will keep it from happening any time soon. 

Plastic is, of course, like any technology humankind develops or stumbles upon. We can do responsible, good things with it and we can do horrible things with it. But I have a feeling we all have a different scale as to what's justified and what's just truly horrible, dangerous and wasteful. 

5 comments:

  1. Good post!

    I'd never seen the term "monobloc" before, so I assumed the writers were being snobs... until I followed the link and realized exactly which chairs we were talking about.

    We make so, so much useless junk. Astounding.

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    1. Oh yeah, monobloc chairs are about the least snobby thing ever! There is a funny snobby section in the book re monobloc chairs though - apparently some stylish urban professional had a *nightmare* that her wedding was kitted out in monobloc chairs as per her husband's planning. The horror.

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  2. Plastic takeout containers and pretty much everything in the dollar store...always makes me think of the garbage patch. Excellent correlation between the excesses of plastic stuffs and apparel. Suburban "unwanted clothes" bins are always bursting; we're just a culture of excess. Just read an article about Waka Flocka abandoning his jewelry after meeting a boy in Africa who had never owned a pair of shoes. These are good reminders that we don't need everything we want and that we can good do more good by simply resisting and re-routing what amounts to the waste of extraneous money/efforts.

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    1. I love the terms "resisting and re-routing" -- that should come be used instead of "reduce, reuse, recycle"!

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