Case Study for Sustainability: The Future of Plastics

For more than 100 years plastic has been one of the most important materials we use to create the stuff of our physical world. Plastics are inexpensive, durable, versatile, and ubiquitous in our lives. For all their benefits, though, plastics also present challenges. Plastics are made with fossil fuels and keep us dependent on these nonrenewable, greenhouse-gas-creating resources. The additives used in plastics might negatively affect the health of humans and the environment. Perhaps most critically, the durability of plastics means that they persist, perhaps eternally, in the environment, creating an unsolved problem of pollution and waste.

Plastics are a necessary part of our modern world, and optimists are increasingly interested in finding solutions to the problems of plastics by reforming the ways that we make, use, and dispose of them. Their goal is to find solutions that will still allow us to enjoy the many benefits that plastics can provide without further damaging our planet.

One possible solution to the problems of plastics is “bioplastics,” which big companies market as more environmentally friendly than conventional plastics. The Coca-Cola Company now sells soda in “PlantBottles,” made out of plastic derived from sugar. Ford Motors has been using soy-based plastics to make parts for its cars since 2007. While conventional plastics are made from fossil fuels, bioplastics are made from plant sources like corn, soy, and sugar. It doesn’t get much bigger than Coke and Ford, and right now, “green” plastics are one of the fastest-growing parts of the polymer industry (expanding about 10% per year). They are still only 1% of total global plastics production, but someday they could make up the vast majority of manufactured plastics. According to one expert, “This is the future of plastics.”[1]

The future of plastics is rooted in its past. The earliest pioneers of plastics invention were searching for synthetic replacements for natural polymers like rubber, silk, and shellac, substances that were useful in industrial applications but too rare to fill the needs of the world’s growing economy. One of these pioneers, John Wesley Hyatt, invented celluloid, the first synthetic polymer, while searching for a replacement for ivory in 1869. His creation, made from the cellulose in cotton, was at the same time the first man-made polymer and the first bioplastic. The Age of Plastics and the Age of Bioplastics actually began in the same instant.

The Age of Conventional Plastic began several decades later, with the invention of Bakelite, the first fully synthetic polymer, in 1907. Bakelite was an excellent electrical insulator and was suitable for mass production, which gave it wide popularity in industrial and commercial applications in the industrializing world of the early 20th century.

Bioplastics remained important even with the advent of fully synthetic plastics. In fact, bioplastics had a mighty and enthusiastic champion in Henry Ford, one of the most influential industrialists in U.S. history. Ford encouraged his engineers to find industrial uses for the surpluses of crops like soybeans, and by the 1930s many of the parts of a typical Ford car were made out of soy plastic—a material they have returned to today.

Henry Ford touted soy plastic as “farm-grown,” light, and durable. As a demonstration for reporters, Ford gleefully swung an axe into his own car’s soy-plastic back panel, which rebounded without a mark. Ford hoped to expand the use of soy plastics; an auto prototype made with a soy-plastic frame was a full half-ton lighter than its 3,000-pound steel counterpart, offering greatly improved fuel economy. Even in the past bioplastics were seen as the future.

However, Henry Ford’s plans for a soybean future were killed by the dynamics of supply and demand. In the years following World War II the world was deluged with a supply of abundant, inexpensive petroleum. Cheap oil provided a tremendous boost to American industry and standards of living, but as a result petroleum-based plastics became less costly to manufacture and much more popular than plant-based alternatives. Many petrochemical plastics were also more durable and weather-resistant than bioplastics, increasing their appeal and utility.

Plastics became ubiquitous in American life after World War II. Shoppers bought food wrapped in cellophane instead of wax paper, wore clothing made from nylon instead of cotton, and played with toys made from polyvinyl chloride instead of wood. This expansion of postwar plastics was made possible by cheap and plentiful oil. Concern for sustainability or conservation was overlooked in favor of shorter-term thinking that emphasized cheap production, eager consumption, and easy, thoughtless disposal of plastic.

Over the past decade rising oil prices have forced Americans to again consider the value of conservation, and bioplastics are again seen as a solution for the future. The companies that produce bioplastics argue that they are more environmentally friendly than conventional plastics. But new bioplastics are far from perfect. The production of source materials (plants) still requires fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers. Polylactic acid, one of the most commercially successful bioplastics, can’t be heated above 114°F, limiting its usefulness. And, despite being made of plant material, most bioplastics do not easily biodegrade under normal conditions. One activist contends that using bioplastic is better than using conventional plastic but “not as good as asking ‘Why are we using so many containers?’ My worry is that [bioplastic] legitimizes single-serving, over-packaged products.”[2]

Bioplastics are not yet a perfect solution, but they are at the forefront of diverse efforts to think about plastic from a long-term, sustainable perspective. Other innovators are exploring ways to make recycling more efficient, while still others work to create truly biodegradable plastics. The growing value of fossil fuels has inspired other innovators to find ways to turn conventional plastic back into fuel. These investigators of sustainability recognize both the benefits and drawbacks of plastics. Somewhere in their efforts to solve the problems of plastics while recognizing plastic’s importance in our lives may be the key to the future of plastics.

[1] Ramani Naraya, quoted in Susan Freinkel, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story (New York: Henry Holt, 2011), p. 208.

[2] Elizabeth Royte, “Corn Plastic to the Rescue,” Smithsonian Magazine, August 2006.