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Resources on Plastics in the Environment (June 2022): Benefits

By Margaret Manion


Most readers will probably agree that plastics are not without their benefits. There is only a finite amount of metal in the world, but it is always possible to manufacture more plastic, and unlike many metals, plastic does not rust or oxidize. Examples of “better living through plastics” and more may be found at the American Chemistry Council’s press and public outreach website Plastics Make It Possible ( In addition to downloadable industry reports, parts of the site are devoted to human-interest journalism—stories that resemble internet infomercials—presenting beneficial or lifesaving plastics-enabled innovations. Looking under “What’s New & Cool,” users may view health care mini-stories about, for example, prosthetic devices for disabled people and nonhuman animals, or a flexible patch for noninvasive surgical repair to the heart after heart attack. Or, they may learn that plastic is fifty times lighter than steel of the same strength; and that a vehicle with some of its parts composed partly of plastic will achieve better mileage and be safer than a comparable vehicle with those parts made only of metal. Sharon George, in her chapter contributed to Plastic Waste and Recycling (edited by Trevor Letcher), cites multiple examples of plastics that are now impossible to avoid or replace in their applications because they make such a positive impact on the lives of so many (chapter 17: “Plastics We Cannot Live Without”). As she points out, plastic has enabled the development of important items such as pacemakers, artificial joints, heart stents, and synthetic blood vessels. Computers and smartphones are other examples of products that likely would not have emerged without plastic. In Plastic Water, Guy Hawkins, Emily Potter, and Kane Race describe the evolution of “hydration science,” supporting the culture of jogging and marathon racing, and they additionally look at the lifesaving function of plastic water containers in underserved or disaster-ridden areas where people are without access to safe drinking water. Probably most people realize that plastics have excellent thermal and electrical insulation properties as well as being waterproof, yet they may need reminding that because of plastic’s relatively low cost, some items that had been prohibitively expensive for the average person are now available to many consumers. In Turning the Tide on Plastic, Lucy Siegle explains how plastics have come to replace natural materials in certain luxury products. She cites examples such as ivory from elephant tusks and tortoiseshell from hawksbill turtles, animal body parts that formerly served as standard materials for piano keys and toilet accessories, respectively.

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