Thanksgiving thoughts from a plastics engineer seeking sustainable solutions

As Thanksgiving approaches, I find myself thinking of things for which I am thankful. One of those things is technology.

Butterball turkey
A Thanksgiving staple in plastic film to seal in freshness and netting. Image courtesy Anthony Easton/flickr.

People often ask, what are the greatest technological achievements of all time? You’ve probably heard questions like this. I know I have. The answers are usually fairly typical: The steam engine—or the internal combustion engine. The movable-type printing press. The airplane. The personal computer. The internet. Putting human beings on the surface of the moon— and then bringing them back home.

These are all fantastic achievements, and they changed history. They also involve combinations of technologies, arranged in new and unique ways to do something big.

In my mind, great technological achievements are not mega events, they are subtle little breakthroughs that change everything. I think of the discovery of the simple machines, including the wheel—and the axle. The lever. The pulley. The inclined plane.

I think of breakthroughs in materials. The mixing of mud and grass to make bricks, the world’s first composite material. The firing of clay to create rigid, heat-resistant pottery, which allowed for water to be boiled. The smelting of copper and tin to make bronze, ushering in the Bronze Age. The alloying of iron with carbon, giving birth not only to the Iron Age, but to the making of steel, the world’s first synthetic material.

I think of breakthroughs in applied sciences. The discovery of the concept of density by Archimedes. That gave us the Eureka moment: Ah-hah! I have found it! The conversion of fat into soap by the action of heat in the presence of an alkali, like wood ash, a process now called saponification. I am thankful for the discovery of saponification. Where would mankind be without soap?

I think of breakthroughs in the creation of other synthetic materials: Polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride (aka Bakelite). Polyhexamethylenediamine-adipic acid (aka nylon). Polyethylene (aka PE). I think of the applications of those materials. Electrical insulators. Cable ties. Plastic bags. Duct tape. Saran wrap.

Saran wrap is a brand name for a line of PE film sold by S.C. Johnson & Co. It was originally used to describe a film made of polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC), which was discovered by Dow Chemical. I am thankful for the invention of plastic film. Where would we be without plastic film packaging for food? However, we do have issues with our use of PE film, including re-use, disposal, recycling.

My collection of PE film this month is larger than in past months and will probably end up being stuffed into a a 13-gallon plastic trash bag. It felt weird pulling that bag of its box. I am using a brand new bag—made of PE film—to be used for my recyclable film project. Of course, the box that the bag came from is made of 100% recycled cardboard.

This month, there are the usual small bags, including a small wrapper from a paint trim roller, 4 inches long, 3/8 inch nap. I think the roller and its fibers are made of polyester; not sure. Nothing beats a fresh coat of paint. But I am certain the wrapper is made of PE film. Also, the wrapper from some organic cherry tomatoes, on the vine. They looked so sweet when I bought them. Yesterday, they didn’t look so good. The tomatoes are now in the compost pile. The wrapper is in the bag of recyclable film (after being washed and dried, of course). And soon, a wrapper from a frozen turkey.

This Thanksgiving, I give thanks for PE film.

P.S.: I came across a website that has a page to find a collection site. Turns out there are dozens of nearby stores where I can drop off my clean plastic film, including Target, Kohl’s, Walmart, Vons and Lowes. Who knew?

Read the next installment in this series here. Missed the beginning of this journey? Then you should start by reading part one.

 

Eric LarsonEric R. Larson is a mechanical engineer with over 30 years' experience in designing products made from plastics. He is the owner of Art of Mass Production, an engineering consulting company based in San Diego, CA. Products he has worked on have been used by millions of people around the world.

Larson is also moderator of the blog site plasticsguy.com, where he writes about the effective use of plastics. His most recent book is Poly and the Poopy Heads, a children’s book about plastics and the environment. It is available on Amazon.

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