Wake Up and Smell the Polymers

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Imagine a TV ad featuring a loopy  Zooey Deschanel singing the praises of plastic. Not pretty, nor as comfy as the touch and feel of cotton – which carries its share of pitfalls as well. Still, ubiquitous plastic has functioned as the toxic fabric of our lives for the past sixty years.

Wake up and smell the polymers. Literally.

Synthetics play an inescapable role in our lives, unlike the cotton-coated world portrayed in Deschanel’s ad. Consider:

You awake, clad in polyester pajamas, squeeze toothpaste from a slick tube onto the polyamides nylon bristles of your toothbrush, wash your hair with phthalates-enhanced goo from colorful containers, and comb your tresses with a plastic comb that was (of course) hermetically sealed in plastic casing.

You use a plastic sealed tampon and head to breakfast, descending stairs carpeted in stain-resistant synthetic shag embedded with acid dye blockers to brew coffee through a plastic cone filter. You remove the foil crown from your yogurt container and the chunky green cap from your bottle of Simply Orange. You fry an egg in your non-stick, polytetrafluoroethylene treated pan. You climb into your car – the interior, carpet, dashboard and windshield fabricated with more of that plastic. You don your polycarbonate eye wear and apply a smudge of sunblock from that tube in the glove compartment, and you’re off.

You’re sipping your beverage from a plastic lid, ready to embrace a work milieu stocked with royal blue Papermate pens, a plastic keyboard, a double decker printer and mystery mesh task chairs with sturdy polyurethane arms.

You get the picture, and yes, it isn’t the hopeful one conveyed to college grad Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate in 1967. Plastics, considered king when petroleum was abundant, could become a thing of the past sooner than you think. Here’s another word for you Ben: Tanked!

“It’s not talked about on CNN, but informed people including the CIA and Defense Department know oil supplies are crashing rapidly,” observes conservationist Brad Hoyt about the looming crisis. “We stopped producing the oil we need in the ’70s and those we are exporting it from will stop because they don’t have enough to meet their own needs. What will we do then? We will either have to do without or go to war with Mexico and Saudi Arabia and take their oil.”

Mexico’s exports to the U.S. declined to 0.51 barrels per day from 2005-2008, and in 2010, supply is expected to fall to 2.5, nearly half a million barrels per day less than in 2009. In other words, a major source for manufacturing the fabric of our lives is seriously threatened.

“The possibility that Mexico’s oil and gas exports to the U.S could go to zero within seven years looks very real,” says investment analyst Chris Neddler of Energy & Capital.  “Rising domestic consumption with declining supply puts an ever-tightening squeeze on imports, yet I have found no evidence that policymakers are paying any attention to this critically important dynamic.”

Meanwhile, what many of us cannot ignore is the damage already done from petroleum-based products, especially the Pacific Ocean plastic islands which serve as graveyards of misguided consumption and evidence we are destroying places where we don’t even go.

Human beings have always manipulated materials for everyday objects. Reeds for baskets, clay for dishes, metal for tools and carts. The term plastic is derived from the Greek plastikos, which means fit for molding, something that can be pulled, cast or pressed into various shapes for tubes, bottles, boxes and fibers.

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The commercial plastic or celluloid we have come to know and rely on, is largely derived from petroleum, which is a concern since it is basically toxic and something you don’t really want on your skin. Back in 1951, two research chemists discovered polypropylene polyethylene while greasing the wheels for a manufacturing process that begins with drilling and refining to form the powdery polymer compound. From there the compound is molded and cooled and divided into tiny pellets to be shipped to the makers who continue to mold it into almost everything you touch and feel.

Imagine a day without the touch and feel of plastics. If you can, you are way ahead of the pack, and most likely will fare better when the celluloid that engulfed your existence becomes a memory. But don’t  be alarmed. The vast stores of the stuff we have produced the past 10 years, alone, should get us through the hump until those helpful chemists come along with another brilliant idea.

Images: ringoblog, The Find,  Urban Boundaries, Richforth, Ancora

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.