One of our biggest battles is to overcome this negative image of plastic being perpetuated by the popular media in recent years. However, don’t be fooled into thinking the national press are the only ones to blame; neither is this a new trend.
I managed to find an article dating back to 1953 (the same year Dow introduced the household version of its now famous Saran wrap) in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine, in which one D. Kenwin Harris paints a detailed and often gruesome picture of the many potential side-effects of expisure plastics. Admittedly, many of his scenarios take place in the manufacture of plastics and chemicals, which to this day can be a toxic and dangerous business. However, speaking on the consumer front, Harris concludes ominously: “The importance of a full investigation of plastic materials likely to be used for certain purposes is stressed.”
Fair enough. The post-war western world was characterised by a new era in manufacturing, one which looked to economise with cheaper, disposable materials. With plastic entering the home on a greater scale, naturally there was a need to investigate the potential for long-term side-effects, especially on children.
But surely we have now reached the long-term? Shouldn’t we know about the side-effects by now?
Health concerns are not the only historical factor here. The aesthetics of plastic often derive an association with the word ‘artificial’. It is sometimes a bit cliché to quote Oscar Wilde (he talked a lot) but here goes: when asked why he thought American society was so violent during the 19th Century, he quipped, “because you have such ugly wallpaper”.
Wilde’s idea was that we fail to function properly when we detract from natural elements with artificial aesthetics. As a lover of wildlife and nature I tend to agree, but I don’t apply the same theory to plastic. Working in the industry, I see the skill and engineering that goes into plastic product design and manufacture. It is no less a craft than woodwork or metalwork. Given the level of skill and engineering that goes in at design and manufacture, I find it hard to view many of these applications as ‘artificial’. In fact, when I hear it used to describe something made in plastic, I find the term ‘artificial’ quite rude!
Perhaps, as fossil fuels deplete and biomaterials come more and more into play, the incoporation of the natural into the so-called ‘artificial’ (the pernickety among us would argue that fossil fuels are themselves a natural product) the image problem may eventually fade from memory.