Saturday, May 1, 2010

Plastic - that dirty word

You have to be a pretty sick bastard to hate waterfalls and little birds, but plastic is easy to hate. It's synthetic, cheap and, hell, a ton of it is made in China. It represents mass consumption and shit that breaks a week after you bought it. But it turns out that plastic isn't all that superficial and actually pretty neat if you take time to get to know it. What makes it neat is that it represents a singular contradiction, one that flies in the face of our ideas of what is natural. After all it's not an organic, all-natural, pesticide-free creation of mother nature. Or is it?

plastic - making you look cool since 1855

It turns out that plastic is largely made from insanely old dead plants aka petroleum
From Wikipedia: "Petroleum or crude oil is a naturally occurring, flammable liquid consisting of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights, and other organic compounds, that are found in geologic formations beneath the earth's surface." ..."It is a fossil fuel derived from ancient fossilized organic materials."

Basically lots of former living things, mostly plants, escaped the recycling forces of decomposition and over millions of years of getting buried and subjected to tremendous pressure and heat resulted in weird shit we call fossil fuels including petroleum, natural gas and coal.

All these different 'all-natural' petroleum products have some very interesting chemical properties which have allowed us to make an astounding variety of things, some of which are commonly associated with the axis of environment evil like plastics, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and pesticides.

So if chemists had to step in and finagle with a natural substance maybe we can still save this anti-plastic prejudice by appealing to the differences between what's truly organic and that which is synthetic? Something direct from nature would constitute an organic product (petrol) and something finagled with by chemists would be synthetic right?

Actually it's not that simple: the difference between organic and synthetic is largely semantic...
Wikipedia on Synthetic: "Compounds that are prepared by reaction of other compounds are referred to as "synthetic". They may be either compounds that already are found in plants or animals (semi synthetic compounds), or those that do not occur naturally."

Plastic - no turtles or elephants necessary

The problem with this definition is that it includes such innocent things as a food recipe. After all it combines 'natural' materials in a novel combination and even subjects them to various chemical reactions (heat from cooking, fermentation in the case of bread stuffs) to create a unique end-product never before seen in the history of the universe: Chili. If you're committed to live a wholesome natural organic lifestyle you might have to spit out that mouthful. Actually the definition of organic isn't that much better:

 Acrylic paint on dead elm tree sections

Basically organic just means 'contains carbon'. Since that includes a whole shit load of stuff including those associated with living organisms, like puppies, AND other things that aren't, like diamonds and steel, we try to subdivide this further into not-so-cleanly-cut categories which differ depending on who you ask. In the end "The distinction between "organic" and "inorganic" carbon compounds while "useful in organizing the vast subject of chemistry... is somewhat arbitrary".  And even after all this "Many polymers (a category which includes all plastics), are organic compounds".

Styrofoam (plastic bubbles) - gee what an organic looking pattern!

Just like the difference between natural and synthetic, the distinction between organic and inorganic is useful insofar as it helps us to describe complicated things and prevents irreversible brain implosions, but is less than useful when used as a tool to judge between what is safe or unsafe, good or bad. Everything in the universe is made from the same basic ingredients. No exception.

3D printed white nylon

Those fancy complex carbon-based molecules that make up tears, organic whole wheat bread and hairballs are made from ingredients found in the same pantry as those used to make vinyl records, anti-depressants and chewing gum.What's really remarkable is the staggering diversity of forms that are possible from such a small list of ingredients.

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