Plastics, Benjamin. Plastics.

Colorful  tiny pieces of plastic collected from a beach
Microplastics IIb by Wolfram Burner (2015) CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr. https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7597/16922920515_d4861c3fce_b.jpg

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

The Graduate (1967)

Plastic has a tough reputation. On the one hand, it has made my life better and easier in many ways. It makes my car lighter, allowing it to be more fuel efficient. Molded plastic boxes help me organize containerize my stuff and store leftover food. Woven synthetic fabrics (nylon, polyester) make my clothes and shoes more durable, dry more quickly and more comfortable. Plastic also is a non-renewable resource if it is made from petroleum, is not always easily recycled and causes serious pollution problems.

Some cool things I found while exploring my love affair with plastics:

Randall Munroe & xkcd help explain that while plastic dinosaurs may be made from petroleum oil, this does not mean they contain actual dinosaurs. In fact, petroleum oil is made from millions-years-old dead marine plankton, which sounds considerably less sexy than “dinosaurs”. However, it appears to be possible to coax algae into making hydrocarbons, with possible applications for biofuel production, without waiting millions of years. (Or involving dinosaurs.)

This bacterial factory “grows” plastic using a SCOBY(yeah, like the mushroomy “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts” that is also used to ferment kombucha.)

Last month, my brother and I sorted his impressive childhood collection of LEGO bricks from other detritus we found in his closets. We eventually recovered several boxes of LEGO for donation to The Giving Brick, an amazing KC-area non profit that collects old LEGOs, cleans and repackages them into kits for kids going through the CASA system.

However, we just ended up putting the many other bits and bobs of random plastic things that had been mixed in with the LEGOs in the trash.

There may be a better way! Tom’s of Maine (the toothpaste people) teamed up with Terracycle to create a recycling program for old plastic toys. (Though as of today, the program has been so successful, they ran out of collection boxes.)

In the hands of Japanese artist Hiroshi Fuji, those random plastic bits could become magical works of art.

The plastic bits we stuffed in the trash will end up in a landfill. At least, we hope they end up in a landfill. Turns out there are much worse places for plastic trash to go, like the ocean. I knew about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the gyre of plastic debris carried by ocean currents in the North Pacific ocean. However, there are also garbages patches accumulating in gyres in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

There are all sorts of unpleasant consequences from microscopic pieces of plastic floating around in the water column. The folks over at The Story of Stuff made this movie about what happens when the plastic microbeads included in some personal care products are washed down the drain:

How long has this plastic stuff been around anyway? The folks over at About.com created a History of Plastics timeline.

Looking for more information on the issues? Want to make your middle or high school kids do some work? Check out The Case of the Plastics Role Playing Game from the Chemical Heritage Foundation (Science museum based in Philadelphia.)

About the Image: Wolfram Burner,
Microplastics IIb – Beach Clean up – 25g plastics / 22m That’s 638KG along the Oregon Coast
The results of picking up plastic fragmens along 22 meters (75ft) of Oregon Coast at Cape Perpetua during a Eugene Natural History Society Beach Clean Up.

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