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Bum Wrap

by Mary Beth Cox

lastic was once a pinnacle achievement in chemistry know-how.


Now plastics reputation is totally trashed. No longer is it considered
cutting-edge technology. Instead plastic is associated with cheap,
disposable junk. It is wasted on silly uses: Wrappers and packaging tossed
upon opening. Oodles of bottles. Scads of bags. And perhaps the most
insulting insult of alldirty disposable diapers!

The Plastic-Free World


How did this mighty material sink so low? Lets think back to a time when
the world was plastic free. People made objects with materials extracted
from the Earth like stone, clay, metal, and glass. These objects tended to
be heavy or fragile. Sometimes they were both. So people expanded their
options with special materials gathered from living things. From plants they
took wood, fibers like cotton, and goos like rubber and resin. From animals
they acquired other stuffs. They fashioned fabrics from wool, silk, and
leather. They carved hard things from shell, bone, ivory, and horn. They
shaped soft things from tallow (animal fat) and beeswax.
People wondered how living organisms could produce so many
awesome substances. They guessed that an animating spirit or Vital Force
generated organic materials. But the German chemist Friedrich Wohler
disproved this hypothesis. In 1828, Wohler was able to synthesize the
organic substance urea. Urea is a component of urine. Its also an important
ingredient in fertilizer. More to the point, Wohler showed that organic
substances could be made with ordinary lab equipment. It was simply a
matter of manipulating compounds that contain the versatile element
carbon.

The Heyday of Classic Plastic


Chemists rushed to create their own awesome carbon-based substances.
Chief among these was plastic. The first human-made plastic was celluloid.
Celluloid was a chemically modified version of cellulose, a starch from the

Bum Wrap

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May be photocopied for classroom use. 2015 by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project from Units of Study for Teaching Reading (Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH).

cell walls of plants. Celluloid replaced ivory in the manufacture of billiard


balls. Before long there were all kinds of brand-new materials with new
brand names. Neoprene replaced rubber. Nylon replaced silk. Customized
foams, fibers, and films suited almost any purpose. Some plastic was unlike
anything ever before seen on Earth: Styrofoam, Lucite, Teflon, Mylar.
Human-made objects became lightweight or nonbreakable. Often they
were both. Plus, plastic performed perfectly as a protective wrapping. It
was airtight and waterproof. It was resistant to chemicals and microbes. As
nonconductive insulation, plastic even held heat and electricity at bay.
People mass-produced plastic efficiently and inexpensively. Old plastic
objects were scrapped the moment they became obsolete. New plastic
objects instantly assumed their place. Unfortunately all that scrapped plastic
was indestructible to a fault. It never seemed to go away. It accumulated
in empty spaces. At first it collected in closets and cupboards, and then in
landfills and oceans. The miracle material became a public nuisance. People
developed coping strategies for managing unwanted plastic. Their only
recourse was the three Rs: Reduce, reuse, and recyclepreferably in that
order!

A Fourth R: Reinvent
To be fair, plastic wasnt to blame for the problem. Plastic did everything
asked of it and more. People brought about the plastic mess. Only people
can make it better. Plastic is nothing if not versatile. So why not invent
new plastic that eliminates the problem? Lets end our dependence on
classic plastic. Lets think back to the time of celluloid. Why not make
new plastic based on naturally occurring substances? There are plenty of
promising models among the carbohydrates and proteins. Keratin from
poultry feathers. Chitin from insect husks and fungi. Gluten from wheat,
casein from milk, albumen from eggs, collagen from processed meats. These
durable substances serve their creatures well. They are easily dismantled
when their service is over. New human-made plastic could do the same.
Maintain structural integrity while in use. Degrade when the job is through.
Degradation could be accomplished with microbes, weathering, heat, or
chemical treatments, or some combination thereof.

Bum Wrap

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May be photocopied for classroom use. 2015 by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project from Units of Study for Teaching Reading (Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH).

The Wrap-Up
Theres no going back to stone crocks and wooden chests. Plastic is here to
stay. But people need to rethink their relationship with synthetic materials.
That calls for a few more Rs. Lets require short-lifespan materials for
disposable items like wrappers and packages, bottles and bags, and yes,
disposable diapers. Lets recover and repurpose longer-lasting substances.
And by all means lets repair the reputation of plastic. Plastic: Its a
respectable product of human ingenuity.
Mary Beth Cox is a chemist from Texas. Her three kids wore cotton
diapers.
Mary Beth Cox, Bum Wrap: Does Plastic Deserve to be Trashed Odyssey
Magazine, November/ December, 2014. Carus Publishing Company.
Reproduced with permission.

Bum Wrap

page

May be photocopied for classroom use. 2015 by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project from Units of Study for Teaching Reading (Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH).