The high-intensity lights encased in heat-resistant thermoplastics lit the operating table, reflecting off the sterile polyester blanket and giving an urgent blue glow to the room. As the surgeon's vinyl-gloved hands finished stitching the chest wound with a flexible thread of nylon, the nurse called out for the oxygen. In less than a second, the highly reactive but nevertheless life-saving gas, flowed through the unreactive plastic tube and into the patient's life. For the medical staff, it was just an everyday occurrence.
Every day, that is, since the development of plastics. Not so very long ago, our world was void of plastics. It was a world whose advancement was checked by the limitations of metals, glass and wood. Somehow, in the passage of only one century, civilization has advanced from the odd usage of crude amber resins to the common usage of some wonderful carbon-based polymers called plastics. Plastics that weave, wind and intertwine themselves into everybody's lives. Plastics without which the world as we know it would not exist. Plastics that protect our food and thus our health through airtight packaging, and allow someone's father, who also happens to be a heart surgery patient, to see another sunrise.
Plastic is very beneficial to our society and its application to the medical field is but one in a multitude of usages. There is probably no other material so indicative of the overall high level of technology humankind has reached.
Plastics are so dynamic, in fact, the derivation of the word plastic from the Greek word plastikos means ``able to be shaped,'' and plastics are most certainly able to be shaped. So many different types of plastics have been developed and manufactured to suit about every imaginable application that it would be a Herculean task to attempt describing them all! With the potential for rigidity or flexibility, air tightness or breathability, from resistance to heat, chemical or abrasion damage to an unprecedented capacity for sterility, and most importantly, with the capability to be recycled as well as almost always being the cost-effective alternative, it is no wonder that plastic use has been adapted into almost every venue of life.
Plastics permit champions to ski at the fastest possible speed with lightweight, incredibly strong polymer-based skis, help homeowners save energy in the home through airtight vinyl windows that will not warp, chip or require repainting, and provide reliable seatbelts manufactured of tough, yet flexible nylons for all car passengers.
From thermosets, the first widely applied type of plastics which, once formed, can withstand tension as strongly as steel, to thermoplastics, which are so versatile they may be remolded repeatedly, or blended with other materials to acquire the other material's best characteristics, plastics are ever-present.
In terms of recycling, both thermoplastics and thermosets may be either directly or indirectly reused for many applications. Thermosets may be ground and used as fillers, thermoplastics may be remolded to suit different applications.
Plastics which are bio- or photodegradable have been developed, and currently there is ongoing research into the possibility of producing polylactic acid plastic made from lactic acid that can be derived from starch. Potato peels, whey and sorghum, to name a few of the many tons of starch-containing food wastes discarded each year by food industries, would not only save millions of dollars as substitute sources of lactic acid compared to the petroleum byproducts traditionally used, but also conserve energy since the process is more energy efficient. On a different note, it has been proven by several research teams that polystyrene foam, from which coffee cups, clamshell containers and other food packaging and utensils are made, well and superiorly offsets the small amount of space it occupies in landfill sites — in fact, 95 percent of the foam is air — by its hygienic application in important areas of our society such as hospitals and school institutions.
Not so very long ago, the world was void of plastics. And a very long time ago, humankind discovered a method to make fire. Perhaps one day in the future, society will look back over the centuries and acknowledge a development as important to humans as the discovery of fire. They will come to honor the development of plastics.
Sabry is the recipient of SPE's 1997 International Jonathan Bindman Essay Contest. She is a senior at Preston High School in Cambridge, Ontario.