Try to imagine life today without plastics, said Jeffrey Weinstock, an English professor and authority on American popular culture. There are cars filled with plastics that provide lighter weight and safety, spiral-bound notebooks with vinyl covers that have replaced cardboard, plastic milk jugs in nearly every refrigerator and toothbrushes that have become highly engineered plastic marvels.
But sometimes he wonders about the trade-off.
The metal Tonka trucks of his childhood were heavy and durable, but plastic toys are less expensive to produce, making them more widely available to kids with less money.
“Even sleds,” Weinstock said July 23 by telephone from Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich. “When I was a kid I had a Flexible Flyer. It had metal runners and I'd use a candle to wax them down every time. Now nearly everyone has one of those plastic sleds that look like a boat. Are kids today getting the same experience out of sledding that I did?”
The American experience of today's generation involves plastic more than their parents' generation, and especially more than their grandparents'.
Today's Slinky is made of plastic, not metal. Today's sneaker has ethylene vinyl acetate cushioning and copolymers rather than canvas and rubber. School dairy programs have begun selling milk in high density polyethylene bottles, rather than cardboard.
“Plastics have become so commonplace, so respectable in so many respects,” said Bryon Fitzpatrick, who serves as chairman of the industrial design department at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.
Most people never even think of how much they use plastics — and sometimes do not even realize what material they are looking at, he said.
“I was in a PT Cruiser the other day, and there was trim in the instrument panel which looked like chrome,” Fitzpatrick said. “It wasn't chrome, of course, it was painted plastic, but most people don't know that.”
Even the Amish have gone plastic, using fiberglass buggy wheels and replacing metal with plastic on horseshoes and using plastic in place of leather for harnesses and whips, said Samuel Belcher, a 50-year veteran of the plastics industry and a Plastics Hall of Fame member. Belcher now runs consulting group Sabel Plastechs Inc. in Moscow, Ohio.
When he first started working at Rubbermaid Inc.'s Wooster, Ohio, facility, the focus was on replacing glass containers in the bathroom, then in the kitchen. Plastics were simply safer than a glass bottle of aspirin or ketchup, which could shatter if dropped on a hard floor.
“I worked in a grocery store in college, and one day we knocked over an entire display of mayonnaise,” Belcher said. The glass bottles broke. “Imagine the mess. A syrup bottle was even worse.”
The major downside Fitzpatrick now sees to plastics' presence is that American culture has not caught up to embrace recycling, but he's hopeful that will change. And, he hopes increased research into making plastics from renewable resources, such as soy-based resins, will help to offset some plastics use. Because, he said, plastics is not going away.
“We're surrounded by it,” Fitzpatrick said. “It can be a bit overwhelming to think about it.”