Happy Friday. Click This. Plastics.

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plastic_blocksHappy Friday! This week, we celebrate plastic. Much loved, lauded, and despised, plastic has revolutionized how we ship and store products, design medical and surgical devices, reduce the weight of ships, planes, and automobiles, and create virtually indestructible items.

Plastics (or polymers) range from synthetics to semi-synthetic organics, and are used in different ways all over the world. Take, for example, the ubiquitous plastic bag. While plastic bags have been banned in many US cities (and even a few states), they are essential for creatively solving problems in many non-Western nations. Consider Myanmar. Even though plastic bags have been banned in the capital city of Yangon, plastic bags are still used (and reused) to transport hot tea and soup, strap cargo to bicycles, and even repair looms.

Researchers at MIT have created a tiny robot that builds and folds itself, follows signals, carries loads, and also self-destructs. Although the robot is controlled by electromagnets, it’s made entirely of plastic.

The story of plastic can’t be told without mentioning a small company that became a cultural phenomenon by enlisting women to sell bowls that burped: Tupperware. Once inventor Earl Silas Tupper partnered with Brownie Wise, who said women should sell his products by hosting parties in their homes, Tupper’s containers—originally inspired by paint cans—became indispensible objects and status symbols of the modern, American middle class.

How much plastic do you have in your kitchen? In your house? We’ve all heard about the risks associated with BPA, but did you know that the chemicals used to replace BPA carry similar risks? While some people seek to reduce all plastic in the home, others seek to revolutionize it. Check out Biofuels Digest list of the top 10 hottest renewable plastic technologies.

Plastic continues to be the workhorse of the toy industry—even if some of the plastic toys of today are more suitable for adults than children. For example, Yoga Joes are here to help keep the inner peace. (--via Fast Company)

Speaking of toys, after dropping their partnership with Shell Oil, Lego is investing more than $150 million to replace their oil-based plastics with a more sustainable option. Lego’s decision signals a shift in how companies today consider the environmental impacts of their products as well as how consumers—and advocacy groups such as Greenpeace—consider their corporation’s environmental footprint. Because plastic is almost always made of petrochemicals, it is one of the most hotly contested materials. First, these kinds of plastics are made from crude oil, a non-renewable resource. Second, the very bonds that make plastics durable also make them very difficult to degrade.

Would you believe an Amazonian mushroom holds the secret to disintegrating plastic? In 2011, a group of Yale students discovered Pestalotiopsis microspore, a fungi that can eat polyurethane. Building on this discovery, designers Katharina Unger and Julia Kaisinger created the Fungi Mutarium, a tabletop system that allows you to grow and then eat mushrooms that eat plastic. Unger says they taste “neutral.”

Czech artist Veronika Richterová creates fantastical sculptures from plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. As Richterova writes, PET bottles are recyclable:

PET is fairly easy to recycle, and so it can no longer be considered as useless waste. On the contrary, thanks to the organised system of waste collection, it has now become an extremely valued commodity, suitable above all for the production of staple fibres for the textile industry.

Still, she prefers to continue her work with making—and documenting—PET-ART. (--via Colossal)

So, what does the future of plastic look like? With an increase in 3D printing, innovations in organic plastics (such as plant starch based polylactic acid, which is also known as PLA), and a resurgence in domestic manufacturing, plastic isn’t going away anytime soon. Our societies and our supply chains are inextricably intertwined, and plastic has been woven into our daily lives.

P.S. To learn more about the history of plastic, check out Susan Freinkel’s book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. You can read an excerpt here.

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About the Author

Amanda Menking
Amanda Menking is a PhD student at the University of Washington's Information School. She's currently exploring gender dynamics and gender-based hostility in online communities. Amanda is a collaborator with the ... Read More 

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