The Good, The Bad, The Plastics

Straws have reignited a debate about use and waste

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Starbucks recently announced a ban on all single-use plastics by 2020. Photo by Omar Lopez

It’s virtually impossible to read this blog without the aid of plastics. Our phones, our computers, our printers, all use the material made popular by a 20th century revolution in manufacturing. And yet, plastic seems to have become a bad word.

Starbucks recently announced a ban on all single-use plastics by 2020. This announcement has been celebrated for reducing plastic waste but also criticized by some for not considering the potential impact on people with disabilities, for whom straws may be a necessity. The straw ban has drawn out polarizing responses, particularly on social media. Perhaps it’s time to take a step back and consider the vast impact plastics have on our lives and our world — the good, the bad, and the always unpopular "somewhere in between".

Plastics are a cheap, moldable, and corrosion resistant material, making them easily manufactured into a wide range of products. As a result, this material has become a dependable staple in our everyday lives, supplying items ranging from grocery bags to take-out containers to straws. With the amazing properties plastics provide, we contend that plastics should be celebrated for their unique capabilities and the life-changing applications they enable.

Single-use straws are typically made of a highly durable plastic called polypropylene. This impressive durability is the reason that straws take hundreds of years to break down in landfills and oceans. However, we can better utilize polypropylene by employing it when durability is actually required, rather than an unfortunate side effect. By building our sewage piping and car bumpers out of this plastic, we prevent sewage leaks into our backyards and avoid bumper cracks in precarious parallel parking situations. High durability plastics are better suited in these cases than as a straw used only for the duration of an iced soy latte.

And plastics are destined for so much more than just these mundane applications. 3D-printed plastic models allow doctors to prepare for complex procedures prior to surgery, or before a child is even born. Personalized bone and tissue models match the exact anatomy of the patient and are especially valuable in planning for risky operations on small children. 3D-printed plastics have even been used in prosthetics for life-saving bone transplants and are helping premature babies develop eyesight. In addition, plastic beads might soon be a cancer treatment option that can isolate chemotherapy drugs to tumor sites.

While plastics have existed since 1907, we are continuously discovering new types and developing new ways to make — and use — them. This has resulted in a wide range of properties enabling critical applications where there is no material substitute. Plastics now are vital for groundbreaking technologies ranging from electronic devices to medical technology and space equipment, and their importance is only continuing to grow.

In the future, we might wake up and sport wearable “smart clothes”, where plastic components will convert our movements to electrical power. Or we might board an airplane equipped with self-healing plastics, designed to quickly repair dangerous microcracks during flight. Plastics that generate energy or self-heal capitalize on the valuable properties of plastics in ways that a single-use straw does not.

As you go through the rest of your day, consider how often you use plastic products. Think about the convenience provided by this extraordinary class of materials, and consider if the advantage of using plastic in each situation outweighs the environmental cost. While single-use plastic straws are merely a luxury for many, they do play a larger role for some. A commitment to using plastic when it truly provides an advantage is key to limiting pollution and fully harnessing the life-changing potential of plastic.

About the authors: Nathan Bradshaw is a materials science graduate student and NSF Graduate Research Fellow at Northwestern. He works on the solution processing of materials that are only a few atoms tall. His lab uses a wide range of processing and printing techniques to work with materials at all stages of development, from making new materials to fabricating devices. He is a passionate science communicator who enjoys sharing his love of science with others. When not in lab he enjoys playing Dungeons and Dragons and traveling with his wife.  

Jennifer DiStefano is a materials science graduate student and NSF Graduate Research Fellow at Northwestern University. She works to understand a new class of super-flat materials called 2D materials. Her lab uses high powered microscopes to view these materials nearly down to the individual atoms. She hopes to one day see these materials used in future electronic devices. She has also been a leader of the Northwestern Graduate Society of Women Engineers for several years and is committed to science outreach in the local community. When not in the lab, she enjoys hiking, listening to big band jazz, and exploring the jungles of Costa Rica.

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