Fantastic Plastic?

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   July 4, 2019

Those of you who’ve seen the 1967 movie The Graduate may or may not remember it very well, but if you were asked to quote a single word from it, I think I know what it would be. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the film where the hero, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is at a party celebrating his graduation, when a neighbor takes him aside to discuss his future, and says “Benjamin, I want to say one word to you – just one word: PLASTICS.”

I think that word in that scene was meant to satirize the entire materialistic culture of America which had flourished since World War II, and was only then being challenged by the so-called “Counter-Culture,” as symbolized and embodied by the Hippies. (Remember, 1967 was the year of the “Summer of Love.”)

You may also recall the movie Cool Hand Luke, which came out in that same year, and had a song which began:

I don’t care if it rains or freezes
As long as I’ve got my Plastic Jesus
Ridin’ on the dashboard of my car.

Ever since that era, the word “Plastic” has had something of a bad rap – in some ways comparable to the term “Mickey Mouse,” which went from being the name of a beloved cartoon character to an adjective indicating “shoddy” or “second rate.” I think the latter fall from grace was associated with the popularity of “Mickey Mouse watches.” They were cheap, and presumably of poor time-keeping quality, but had the attractive novelty feature that the “hands” of the timepiece were replaced by the arms and gloved hands of Mickey Mouse himself, whose whole figure was depicted on the watch face.

(Forgive me for wandering, but among the many take-offs attempting to capitalize on that very successful Mickey Mouse idea was the Spiro Agnew Watch, based on President Nixon’s then Vice President. It is said that the Agnew watch soared in popularity after Jacqueline Kennedy was seen wearing one.)

But, getting back to plastics, – I am no scientist, and have very little technical knowledge of their chemical composition. But I do know that they’re not directly derived from any naturally occurring sources, as wood is from trees, or bone extracted from animals. It also seems clear that plastic has many advantages over such other substances.

Rather than itemize and analyze all these characteristics in the abstract, however, let me focus on one particular usage which in recent times became the subject of great controversy: plastic bags, of the type used and supplied to customers in stores, particularly in grocery markets – the larger ones, usually with handles, for carrying the goods out of the store. For many years, these very convenient containers were widely used and appreciated. They were light and strong, and when not in use, could be squeezed into a very small space. They were in many ways better than the paper bags which they often replaced. And they were so economical that the stores could afford to provide them for free.

However, over the course of time, it turned out that (obeying what I’ve learned to call “The Law of Unintended Consequences”) there were certain drawbacks which nobody could have foreseen. The very lightness of these bags, combined with their durability, caused all sorts of environmental problems on both land and sea, such as their being wind-blown into trees, or stifling marine creatures who tried to eat them. Eventually powerful social movements developed, to limit or even ban their use.

I personally felt more conflicted than I’d ever been before over a serious social issue. I understood all the ecological arguments – but the fact is that I was in love with plastic bags, and I was broken-hearted to have to give them up. Why should those of us who used and disposed of them properly be penalized because others didn’t?

This story, however, has a happy ending – at least in my neck of the woods. What has emerged is a new kind of plastic bag – not so light and flimsy as its predecessors, but even stronger, more capacious, and more durable. The stores are now required by law to charge a nominal 10 cents each – but these bags are so sturdy that they never seem to wear out.

Meanwhile, of course, the whole new range of polymers, polylactics, and cellulosics has been re-shaping our lives. Despite all that once-fashionable ridicule, the time is now long past when anyone would dare to be sarcastic about plastic.


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