Note — Nov 22, 2020

Plastic Is a Brilliant Material. But Our Relationship with It Is Trash

TL;DR: One of the issues with plastics is the CO2 emissions during production (like cement and steel, other great polluters), capitalists always be capitalizing, and perhaps the greatest problem is not their existence or using them, it’s how our culture sees plastics as disposable.

Very interesting analysis by Maikel Kuijpers at The Correspondent, part of a series on materials. He looks at the history of plastics, the most important variations, some of the impacts in production and after, what they are replaced with, some of the reasons why, and how we got to today’s treatment of the class of material as largely worthless and disposable.

Like most pieces at that publication, clickthrough for the many many popable notes, references, and a lot of related articles recommended in the right column, as well as the intro which gives a useful and dizzying run-through of just how many bits of plastic with touch in a day.

All around important topic to think about because “plastic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Better to care about it then, instead of abhorring it.”

We’re producing about 400 million tonnes of plastic per year. And much of this disappears in places where it shouldn’t, only to finally end up in the plastic soup. No other material has such a clear association with a certain kind of behaviour: mindlessly throwing away. […]

Plastic is the chameleon of materials. It’s everywhere, in many different forms. It is so ubiquitous, in fact, that Vaclav Smil – materials expert par excellence – doesn’t even try to list all the types and applications.

Plastic is one of the cornerstones of the fossil industry. Not so much because of the amount of fossil fuels used – that’s actually not so high – but because of how indispensable plastic is in our society. […]

Shell is currently building a petrochemical complex in the US state of Pennsylvania to make plastic out of ethylene. This single factory will emit up to 2.25m tonnes of CO2 per year, which is equivalent to 400,000 new cars. And that’s only one of the 300 (!) new petrochemical building projects in the US. […]

But it is not only the material that has plasticity – our behaviour can be moulded too, which the plastic industry knows all too well. We have been taught to throw things away. Offering free plastic bags was part of that: free is worthless.