But Plastics are Kinda Sweet

There’s been a lot of ecotalk on the scourge of plastics, and that’s generally fine by me. I made my own shopping bag, I have ranted about excess plastic packaging, I’m hip. Yo.

But last week, while sick and moving, I spent an afternoon being very grateful for my drugs and my bubble wrap (I’m betting the drugs had a bit to do with all that deep contemplation). My pills were packaged in plastic, and bubble wrap is, of course, plastic, and these are wonderful things. Actually, lots of wonderful things are plastic. Plastics are durable and can be made so much stronger and lighter than most natural materials, and they’re fantastically easy to manufacture into almost anything. Plastics have made incredible engineering advances possible. Plus they’re cheap enough so that goods ordinary people could only dream of a few decades ago are readily available to the masses. These time-saving devices  allow people to raise their standards of living at no cost to resources like wood and ore. Without them, modern medicine wouldn’t exist (and they’d even have to package all those natural supplements in something else). Plastics are awesome.

So why do we hate them? They’re made of chemicals. They’re overused. Their lovely inexpensive qualities take care of that. Stuff we most noticeably don’t need is made of plastic- again, it’s the cheapest way to hand out toys with every faux-food meal, or flimsy bags with every purchase. And once they’re made, they’re here forever. Recycling them is difficult and tends to degrade their properties, and on their own they won’t break down for centuries. And when they’re not stuck in landfill properly, adorable things choke on them, or they blow around tackily. But most of that is because we use plastics poorly, not because plastics are bad.

Maybe part of it is that plastics are decidedly “unnatural”. There’s no “handmade” plastic anything- they reek of machines and mass production and technocracy. Homesteaders can swap butter recipes, but not plastic recipes. The Economist’s green.view column a few weeks ago was on how us hippie folk think that all things unnatural are bad. I thought the column was singularly poorly thought out for such a respectable publication (tone was derisive and bitter, examples chosen were blatantly skewed), but is that it? Is our visceral reaction to plastic the result of our yearnings for an ideal of naturalness?

I think it has more to do with the abuse of plastics by man, and not the plastics themselves. I’m an engineer, after all, and I like science and technology, and I appreciate that we can make it work for us, or we can abuse it. It’s just a lot easier to crusade against the definite “plastics” than against everybody’s thousand bad plastic habits- that makes ecopeople seem so judgemental and self-righteous, after all.

I’ve struggled with my plastic use in the past.  All those piles of guilt stuffed in rustling baggies. I’m still going to avoid foam plates and grocery bags (unless I need trash liners) and use aluminum foil instead of sandwich baggies- but I’ll rejoice in my plastic tupperware (or reused cream cheese tubs to prevent food and other waste!) and useful medicine containers and new, affordable latex mattress. Plastics can be part of a sustainable lifestyle, as long as we use them wisely and well.

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