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In defence of plastic

A pot of plastic biros
Plastic receives little recognition for its many uses in everyday life

Plastic has attracted a lot of bad press recently about its potentially damaging environmental implications. After the BBC's Chris Jeavans spent a month living without plastic, Susan Mossman explores the many inventions that rely on it.

By the time Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon in 1969 wearing a space suit largely made of plastics, the space race had spawned a generation of designers using plastics in innovative new ways - in furniture, interiors and in fashion.

These days plastic is so much a part of our everyday lives that it has become almost invisible. And when it is thrust into the spotlight, it's often for negative reasons.

Recently you could have been forgiven for thinking the humble plastic bag is the devil incarnate. But before they were invented in the early 1950s, who still remembers the days of impractical paper bags that dissolved in the rain?

The word "Bakelite" - invented in 1907 and the first truly synthetic plastic - has become a synonym for all early collectable plastics. They range from the semi-synthetics such as Celluloid, developed in the 19th Century, to the colourful thiourea and urea formaldehydes of the 1920s and 1930s, with names such as Bandalasta and Beetleware.

The more you use plastic in an intelligent and ethical way, the less often you kill animals to have the leather, the less often you kill trees to have wood
Philippe Starck
Designer

Early Bakelite radios, designed for the British Ekco Radio Company by significant designers such as Wells Coates and Misha Black, are now highly collectable and expensive.

Without plastics, we would return to the days of wearing entirely natural fabrics, which are good in so many ways but not suited for all applications.

The days of the knitted swimming suit - familiar to those who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s - are well and truly gone. Swimwear before the advent of synthetic, stretchy fibres such as Spandex was subject to sagging, bagging and becoming misshapen.

Laminated surfaces

Now synthetic fibres are engineered to extreme levels to suit higher performance specifications for use in top-of-the range sports wear.

Laminated plastic surfaces were a boon to the housewife of the 40s and 50s. Easy to clean and colourful, they transformed kitchens into light, attractive and hygienic areas.

The Ekco radio
The Bakelite Ekco radio is a design classic

They added glamour to 30s Hollywood films starring Ginger Rogers who danced in light, bright interiors. The impact of this approach was epitomised in 1941, when nine-year-old British actress Diana Dors commented: "I am going to be a film star, with a swimming pool and a cream telephone."

After World War II, a glut of polythene produced to insulate radar cables was transformed into consumer items such as washing-up bowls. Then Tupperware arrived - the ultimate re-useable, re-sealable polythene container.

In the late 40s the public became familiar with a new range of thermoplastic materials: polythene, nylon, PVC and polystyrene. These melted at high temperatures, unlike the earlier Bakelite and urea formaldehydes that, once moulded, were set into shape.

Consumers had to learn to understand how to use these new plastics, and early reported mishaps included the tale of a plastic colander which was placed over a hot saucepan and melted, unlike the metal colander it replaced.

Design icons

By the 60s, designers were using plastics in adventurous new ways to create design icons such as Eero Saarinen's Tulip chair - still in production and still desirable. Modern designers such as Ron Arad use plastics to produce surprising, highly functional and/or amusing furniture.

The post-modern French designer Philippe Starck has commented that "the more you use plastic in an intelligent and ethical way, the less often you kill animals to have the leather, the less often you kill trees to have wood".

PLASTIC KEY DATES
1907 - Bakelite, first truly synthetic plastic, invented
1940s - Laminated plastic surfaces became an essential for housewives
1960s - Plastics were used by designers to create new-look furniture
2008 - The latest medical and electrical technology relies heavily on plastics

Plastics play a significant role in medical applications - including artificial polyester veins, silicone implants, and as containers for timed drug delivery into the body and PVC blood bags. These replaced the breakable glass vessels previously used for blood transfusions.

Plastic packaging frequently receives a bad press but is often designed to extend the shelf life of food and may reduce food wastage. New forms of more sustainable and increasingly biodegradable packaging are under development.

The artist Christo has taken the use of plastics as packaging to extreme levels by wrapping buildings - notably the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont Neuf in Paris - and even landscapes in plastic sheeting.

The advent of plastics opened the door to mass production of cheap, attractive goods which democratised the ownership of consumer goods. The Bic biro was designed in 1950 to be a mass-produced cheap consumer item to be used and thrown away, as were disposable razors.

Expensive gadgets

Nowadays expensive gadgets such as state-of-the-art laptops, mobile phones and iPods have plastic casings but no-one considers them cheap, although they are produced in bulk and their environmentally-friendly disposal or reuse requires attention.

Electronic plastics are a rapidly developing new field, with products being developed such as OLEDs (organic light emitting diodes), bendy readable computer screens, plastic solar cells and plastic computer chips.

iphone
Many modern gadgets rely on plastic

Hi-tech engineering plastics are increasingly used in aerospace applications. Plastics composites are an important area of development. Smart plastics which alter in shape are being used in shape-changing aeroplanes, others can change colour with changes in temperature.

New plastics that change from liquid to solid on impact are finding applications in protective clothing and plastic products are being developed using the principles of nature - an area of research called biomimetics.

So plastic can be valuable and can be used for functions where it needs to last for a considerable length of time. Concepts of green design should now be applied to all new plastics products so that disposable items, such as plastic packaging and throwaway consumer items, biodegrade and do not fill landfill sites or litter the landscape or seas.

Dr Susan Mossman is curator of a special exhibition at The Science Museum entitled "Plasticity - 100 years of making plastics". It runs until January 1.


Below is a selection of your comments.

There are positive aspects to plastic use. As a Zero Waste enthusiast, I avoid plastic packaging waste, the main by-product of the Chain of Waste System, so damaging to the environment. Sustainable plastic, already in development, offers a better future.
John Costigane, Johnstone, Renfrewshire

Don't forget the most important use of plastics in the modern world - insulation on electrical wiring. Imagine if we didn't have that.
Sion Hughes, Northampton, UK

All this discussion about plastics in clothing and furniture etc is irrelevant. It needs to be clearly stated that ALL modern technology totally depends on plastics. Without them we would be stuck back in the Victorian era with every horror that entailed.
Brian Smith, Struan, Isle of Skye

"Before they [plastic bags] were invented in the early 1950s all we had was impractical paper bags that dissolved in the rain." I'm sure my grandma would speak up in defence of the string bag if she were to read this statement.
S. Smith, London

Before the advent of the polythene bag we didn't only have impractical paper bags; we had things called shopping bags that didn't fall apart when it rained.
Simon, Leicestershire

Dr Susan Mossman says: "Recently you could have been forgiven for thinking the humble plastic bag is the devil incarnate. But before they were invented in the early 1950s all we had was impractical paper bags that dissolved in the rain." Is this really true? I find it hard to believe that people did not use cloth bags at some point in history prior to the invention of paper and plastic bags.
Varsha Khodiyar, Surrey, UK





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