Alexandra Lange | Essays

Is No the Answer?

Laura Anne Marsden, 21st Century Ruff (recycled plastic bags)

Before Christmas I posted my joy at rediscovering AMAC Plastic Boxes at the Container Store. A childhood favorite, they seemed to me modern design perfection: useful, colorful, cheap. But I was brought up short by the very first comment:
Edward: I can't help but think, "Yikes. More plastic for the landfill (or the gyre)."
No plastic at all? I wondered, and then ordered some Duplo for my son. It came in a plastic tub, fine and useful for storage (although its size camoflaged the true volume of product, much like a cereal box) but within the tub each 10 Duplo blocks were sealed in their own plastic bags. Not sorted by color or size or shape, as if from different production lines. Just separate. I wondered if bulk Duplo sales were a next step.

A few weeks later Marian Bantjes posted Plastics: An Apoplexy on the main DO blog. Her subtitle made clear she was talking about plastic packaging, excessive protection, waste, but again, the comments upped the ante.
Jennie Morris: I have been reading a blog written by a woman who is trying to live her life without platics, for health and environmental reasons. http://plasticmanners.wordpress.com/

Amy: Those that dislike all the plastic in our everyday lives will appreciate the blog http://myplasticfreelife.com/
And again:
davec: Maybe we should start by not purchasing the little AMAC plastic boxes espoused in this very website...
I thought again, No plastic at all? I've seen the photos of garbage dumps from space, read about the underage landfill pickers, seen the strangled seafowl. I understand the crusade for minimal packaging, since that is trash. I understand the crusade for recyclable plastics. I understand Italy's plastic bag ban (though I don't get why it is such a cultural change; supermarkets there have charged for bags for over a decade). I understand why I don't microwave in plastic anymore, why I have to buy all new BPA-free bottles for my next baby, why I carry a nylon tote bag. I bought reusable sandwich bags as stocking stuffers. I also understand these are  minor efforts.

There were good reasons plastic was invented, and there are good reasons to use it still: lightness, durability, moldability. Thinking about no plastic leads me to a river of questions. Which computer do you use in your plastic-free life? If I were to switch to bulk foods and my own glass jars, as another commenter suggests, how would I get those jars, car-free, to the store and back?  I've looked at wooden toys for my child many times and rejected them: a wooden push car is too heavy for most one-year-olds, wooden blocks dent, glass bottles spook me. Excuses, excuses, yes, but how does the car seat--or the bike seat, or the bike helmet--of the future avoid plastic?

What I need, before I withdraw those AMAC boxes from my admiration, is for someone to investigate what it would mean to live in a world with no plastic, and what the unintended consequences might be. It would be a version of the kind of investigation that reveals it is better to buy and mulch a real Christmas tree than to buy and reuse an artifical tree or that, environmentally speaking, disposable diapers and cloth diapers have the same impact. (I nominate Rob Walker, since he works for a magazine with a budget for real reporting, and is now co-running the Unconsumption Tumblr.)

It may be my eight years at a Quaker school with no grades, no competitive sports, no calculus class that makes me so dubious about no. And I'll admit, a plastic-free life sounds hard. But I will cave and start stitching my own toys, once I understand why a blanket no is necessary.

Posted in: Product Design, Social Good, Technology

Comments [12]

funny, i was talking about this with a friend at moma last friday, and we joked/wondered if, in 20 years, plastic would be so obsolete it would become collectible, like bakelite (which i guess is an antique plastic).

god help us all if they ever stop making whiffle ball bats out of dyed yellow dinosaur juice.
mark lamster

Plastics are a wonderful modern invention that has become essential for us to enjoy the quality of life those of us privileged to live in the modern western world. The delivery of the food you eat, the fuel efficiency of the car you drive, the computers you use is dependant on the use of plastics.

Recently we have discovered problems with certain types of plastics being harmful to use. The elimination of these types of plastics and/or the redesigning of these plastics to become harmless is in my opinion essential.

It is even my opinion that saving oil and natural gas for plastics is almost as important as reducing modern society's carbon footprint, with respect to developing alternative energy sources for personal and public transportation.

I worry about leading an environmental-friendly life, but eradicating plastic is rather extreme. Now, I live in Brazil, and here we research on clean, alternative resources for not only fuel but also plastics. Ceasing to use plastic in this world is almost like going amish. People often exaggerate when it comes to "living green". The impact on our lives would be outrageous, if we simply stopped using plastic. The reasonable thing to do is yes, avoiding waist to the maximum, but using decent, non-harmful materials. Now they may be expensive, but as they become needed, they'll become cheaper.
Tomas Aloise

Plastics are great, they are just greatly misused.

Last year my project diploma was about "packaging and sustainable development", at first I made the same assumption (no to plastic), but more I learned, and more I realized their is no such a thing as one true answer. It depends on a vast number of parameters...

And curiously I discovered that paper bags are more impactful than their plastic counterpart (in La guerre du pochon). We talk a lot about carbon, but if you make the compared life cycle analysis of both, the paper bag is responsible of an incredible acidification of the ocean, and at the bottom line plastic win. It's just an example, and of course the reusable bag (after 12 uses) is by far better than the single-use (unless you don't loose it). It appear that "reuse" is (almost) the magic trick. Not in any case, but the original comparison had the merit to make you think...

If you switch to bulk food I may have a suggestion, but it's plastic ;)
(the concept finally developed for the diploma : http://watsdesign.blogspot.com/2010/10/packaging-and-sustainable-development.html)
Emmanuel Gilloz

Umm, I'm pretty sure you can make polymers from basically any plant cellulose.

Considering that spider silk is a polymer that's almost exactly equivalent to kevler in terms of strength:weight and that it can be manufactured at room temperature by composting a small amount of dead insects (thank you Mr. Thackara...), this problem is damn sure not insurmountable.

It's just a matter of engineering advancement at this point to fill in the gaps in usability. Since food container regulation is (somewhat) strict in the US and we've already achieved hot drink cups with compostable bioplastic liners, with basically no serious funding effort, I don't really see this as being a huge logistical problem, if we put in a bit of effort and some $$, we should be able to create renewable plastics for the vast majority of uses on a reasonable timeline.
Jim Moffet

My biggest complaint with plastics is beyond their chemical impact and more for their behavioral impact.
It seems to me we have come to love plastic more for its ability to absorb our carelessness than it's ability to promote true progress in Life. Using it has trained us to bang more, break more, stretch more, carry more, store more and waste more. Of course being careless is a choice - but the more we live without the constraint and lessons of Fragility - the more we are likely to destroy beautiful and healthy things.

The extra space in the duplo bin means more space to hold additional bricks, once you start supplementing your original set. Deceptive perhaps, but actually useful.

what will plastic be made of, when all oil is used up? isn't that point within reach?

If we're to live in a plastic-free world, there's a lot of work to be done and a number of changes that need to be made. Think about how many items are made of, or contain, plastic. Then there's the plastic used to manufacture our goods - heaps!

There's still oil out there, it's just a matter of price. How much are we willing to spend to get to it? Are we willing to pay more for plastics if we get to retain our current lifestyle? How about the environmental changes and damages - what are we willing to accept?

Of course a blanket-no is not the answer, but relativity is certainly not the problem. Every small change in behavior to the benefit of the ecosystem is real.
The question is one of disposability. As someone already mentions here (Carlo, it's worth repeating!), the bad record and reputation of plastic is tied to "its ability to absorb our carelessness," not to its intrinsic lack of beauty and utility.
If glass jars are too heavy for your bike trip to the grocery store, by all means, giant AMAC boxes would be much better than disposable packaging.

Yes, I do think "no" to all unessential plastics IS the answer. Until we can make some form of plastic that is totally non-toxic, biodegradable, and from a renewable source, and which is produced in a way that is not harmful to the environement, we really do need to cut out as much plastic as possible. yes, plastic is useful, and there are some things that would be hard to replace such as bike helmets, etc. but anything else which we CAN replace, should be.
children don't need plastic toys. children can have a great time with anything - take them to a park, or give them non-plastic toys. there's so much unnecessary crap out there we really should not be buying, and the toxins that plastic leach into our food and water supply are altering the hormones of our children.

There are now plastics made out of corn, etc. but these also use fossil fuels to produce, and take up a lot of crop land that needs to be used for food. switching to that is not the answer, nor is biodegradable plastics. we WILL run out of fossil fuels, so we WILL stop producing plastic sooner or later, better that we get used to cutting down more and more now.
Amanda Mayfair

I like Carlo's response. It's as if plastic has been promoted as a material that's meant, its "role", is to be abused and discarded (after the early days when plastic was promoted as a mere alternative to wood or metal, which had little appeal to consumers). The little kid who is encouraged to throw away the plastic cups after his sixth birthday party grows up, starts a widgets company, and has no qualms in mass manufacturing goods where the majority of the initial raw plastic is unused and disposed. Because hey, after all, plastic carries that connotation saying it's perfectly okay to be careless with the material because that's what it is intended to do.

Why do we feel some guilt when throwing away birthday cards, even after they no longer serve a function? Maybe instead of plastic being sold as a cheap commodity, it should be exchanged as a gift or hand-me-down from one CEO to another, thereby overriding the existing connotations of cheap, abuse, and discard into a material that's worthy of being cherished. (Silly concept, I know.)

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