What is Life after Plastic?

Who can remember life before plastic? Could you imagine life after plastic? The National Building Museum organized a panel of experts as part of its popular series For the Greener Good: Conversations that Will Change the World titled “Life After Plastic.” This discussion examined the role of plastics as they are used today and how they will change in the future. The organic discussion, molded by questions from the audience and online participants via Twitter (#FGG), was moderated by Lance Hosey, president and CEO of GreenBlue. Other panelists included: Blaine Brownell, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture; Jay Bolus, vice president of technical operations at MBDC; and Robert Peoples, Ph.D., director of the ACS Green Chemistry Institute.

“There’s a great future in plastic.” This statement, from The Graduate in 1967, started off the intriguing conversation that examined the benefits and consequences of America’s (and the world’s) dependence on the inexpensive, durable material. The true reality is that only about 5% of plastics are recycled and practically every piece of plastic ever made still exists.

But is all plastic bad? The panelists were mostly in agreement that plastics are here to stay…at least for now. It takes a long time to transition from an old material to a new one, but everyone on the podium suggested that plastics manufacturers should attempt to take a more green approach when it comes to the chemical make-up of their synthetic materials. Green plastics in existence, including polyolefins and truly green cellulosic bioplastics, are potential options for the future of plastic manufacturing. These plastics will move away from using corn, sugar, and soy, which can compete with crops for food production.

Why should we manufacture plastics with the environment in mind? It has a lot to do with health concerns and product life-cycle, but not all plastics are made the same. Something categorized as plastic can have characteristics as different as comparing concrete and glass. PVC is a misunderstood plastic because the polymer itself is not an incredibly unhealthy building material, but plasticizers added to PVC to make it soft and moldable, are potentially hazardous.

Plastic materials can be easily made from renewable materials, but remember that only 5% of plastics are recycled. What happens to plastic after that first life? At this point America does not have appropriate factories to recycle these materials.

The biggest theme of the evening was the true cost of sustainability—the question, whether or not consumers are willing to pay more for products that are more environmentally friendly, hung heavily in the air. Today’s market reality is that what’s manufactured is in direct response to what consumers want.

As the discussion wound down the panel gave the audience a take-home message: Don’t underestimate the power we have as consumers. We can create great change in material trends by asking what the products are made from, knowing more about the manufacturing process, and at the very least, placing those plastic water bottles in the recycling bin and carrying reusable grocery bags to the supermarket.

The audience asked some thought-provoking questions:

Why aren’t there more government regulations in place to encourage plastic recycling efforts?

Government regulations are put into place when there is a design failure. A recent example is the tire recycling program. Each tire we purchase has an additional $5-7 in the final price in order to pay for recycling efforts. Because of this regulation, over 80% of tires are now recycled.

Instead of using fewer resources and making plastic bags and bottles thinner, why don’t we make them thicker so that they can be used multiple times?

The housing stock is equivalent to a thin, plastic grocery bag. In order to make things affordable we make them so that they easily fall apart. This is why it is essential that consumers are willing to bear the cost of sustainability and pay more for quality.

Not taking into account the aesthetics of vinyl siding, what are the pros/cons of vinyl siding?

Vinyl continues to be popular because it makes a house look new forever. The question is which would you rather have on your home when it is on fire: wood or vinyl? Further, which smoke fumes would you rather your children be inhaling? And as a culture, should we only value materials that look new?

The For the Greener Good lecture series continues in April with an exploration of Historic Preservation vs. Sustainability. Panelists will be discussing how communities balance the historic fabric of vernacular architecture with greener buildings. Attend the lecture in person or follow the live Tweets online (#FGG). The “Life After Plastic” lecture was filmed and can be viewed at www.nbm.org beginning on Friday, February 25.

Stacy Adamson is a Marketing and Communications Associate at the National Building Museum.

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