New respect for plastic could be easily lost

Plastic has come a long way since the first plastic toys were imported from Japan in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember some of those toys -- novelty items like small cars, action figures and other gizmo...

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March 1, 2003 by Canadian Plastics

Michael LeGault, editor
Michael LeGault, editor

Plastic has come a long way since the first plastic toys were imported from Japan in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember some of those toys — novelty items like small cars, action figures and other gizmos you could buy in the bulk section of the dime store with spare change. Most were made of puncture-friendly PVC or ultra-brittle polystyrene and could not pass even one cycle of the standard six-year-old-boy foot crunch, drop-kick or across-room-fling impact tests. As my father deposited the pieces into the trash, he softened his usual lecture about responsibility and value with the scornful remark, “Cheap stuff.”

What a difference a generation makes. Today’s kids are immersed in a world of well-designed, durable, aesthetically pleasing, functional plastic toys, electronic gadgets and personal care items. As a father of two girls, I’ve watched the progress of the revolution first hand. Everything from butterfly clips to McToys, pagers to gel pens, all made from bright, colorful shades of a material that used to get no respect.

The most significant thing about this upheaval is the change in the status of plastic as a pariah material associated with everything cheap, phony and undesirable, to a material from which many of life’s most useful, fun and fashionable items are made

As a designer at a consumer electronics show once put it to me, “It’s not ‘Eewww, that’s plastic.’ It’s ‘Ooooh, that’s cool!'”

The wide-spread acceptance of plastic is not limited to the kid demographic. Apple’s colorful iMac computer has turned the once-stodgy, beige and gray world of electronics design upside down. Plastic has even entered the realm of haute couture with the famous Oh Chair. Produced by Umbra, Toronto’s trend-setting home accessories firm, the curvy, bottom-hugging Oh Chair is made of colored, translucent polycarbonate. According to one fashion writer thousands of the chairs have been sold and it, as well as other plastic home furnishings, are now being sought by the “sort people who, until recently, only bought plastic when it came with surgery.”

So what gives here?

First, it is clear the growing acceptance of plastic is not an accident. If plastic performed as it once did in those early toy days, it certainly wouldn’t be invited into the chic homes and lofts of the fashionistas, no matter how high the mark up. In a decades-long march, materials engineers, designers and processors have collaborated to raise the performance capabilities and aesthetics of an ever-expanding array of plastic polymers, compounds, blends and masterbatches. As a result, the benefits of plastic — lightness, designability, toughness — have practically sold themselves to manufacturers and consumers.

Second, the plastics industry had been able to successfully defuse what seems like a never-ending series of environmentally-related public relations crises. It has done so, not with smoke and mirrors, but with timely information and programs delivered by groups such as CPIA’s Environment and Plastics Industry Council and the Vinyl Council of Canada.

If the next chapter of this phenomenal success story is to be written, industry must continue to challenge pre-conceived notions about what is and isn’t possible in product design. It must also realize that all the battles are not behind it. A fire at a plastics factory will get ten times more media coverage than any other fire. Activists, you can be sure, will continue to launch public-relation broadsides against plastic.

As in the past, success will hinge on the plastics industry’s willingness to take informed, public and pro-active stances.

Michael LeGault, editor

e-mail: mlegault@canplastics.com