You know the list. The technologies, labelled creative destruction, that changed life as we humans knew it: Fire. Pasteurization. The assembly line. Washing machines. Email. Mobile Phones.
Each of these had a dramatic impact on society, generally decreasing the effort required to do a vital human activity and allowing us to do other, more interesting things1.
Should plastic be added to the list?2 When introduced, it was a major new technology and found broad applications3. The ability to engineer polymers so they are flexible, solid, durable, the right colour and shape, mass-producible, light-weight and low cost lead to the introduction of many new products. Products like plastic bags, straws, packaging. The coating on electrical wires. Cheaper just about anything: shoes, suitcases, light fixtures, flooring, automobile components, toys, machine parts, human body part implants. The list goes on forever.
What has been disrupted by plastic?
Most things plastic are affordable, leading to increased consumption of each item. They tend to be single use, by which I mean two things: disposable or non-repairable. Disposable comes from the low cost – “I’m tossing this out because I can get another one for 3 cents”. Non-repairable because of the process used to create plastic widgets. Stuff made out of other substances known to humans can be engineered and modified. Wood, metal, cement, kryptonite4, plaster can all be fiddled with and/or repaired. Plastic, not so much. To be fair, this is what makes plastic appealing – the ability to spin or mold or extrude it into different shapes. The consequence is that it can’t be fixed because it’s all one piece.
Back to disruption. Here’s some of the ways plastic has changed in our lives:
- Eating on the run. Plastic containers, plates and utensils made it possible to grab a meal from the takeout window or mall kiosk and eat it anywhere, rather than tethering dining to a venue that could manage ceramic plates and metal forks.
- Because plastic changed packaging, it facilitated transportation of goods to distant locations. Thus, more competition in many markets. Lower prices. More choice for consumers.
- Plastics made many things affordable to more people. Furniture. Cars. Etc. A new social order of ownership emerged.
- Not coincidentally, with the rise of plastic goods came the era of consumption. Affordable stuff enabled (and required – see above about repairing plastic items) frequent replacement of the items.
Many substitutes, such as plastic bags for paper bags, plastic bumpers on cars, plasticized paper cartons for milk rather than glass bottles, may seem disruptive, especially to the producers of paper bags, metal bumpers and glass milk bottles, but don’t actually result in a new social order.
From my list, plastic has disrupted: sit-down meals, local sourcing of goods, possessions as symbols of wealth, and the need for expertise in repairing many things. Based on fundamental values of community and social connectedness, as well as environmental stewardship, I’d say three of the four of these aren’t good. It could be argued that disrupting possessions as symbols of wealth, is social advancement. Otherwise, plastic disruption has not been good to us, even thought there are plenty of benefits to the use of plastic.
This disruptive technology (generally considered a good thing as it ushers in a new approach to old problems, makes life easier and richer) had negative consequences.
The earth has a problem with plastic. It doesn’t decay, ever. Even kryptonite decays. Plastic was celebrated for its disposableness, while ironically its permanence has clogging up the landfill, oceans, and microcirculation of the earth’s creatures. Oops, we created a monster. Vacuous consumerism snowballs the problem of overflowing landfill, making the monster multi-headed, with enormous tentacles and an awful smell.
Sometimes, what seems like a good idea at the time isn’t. Plastic isn’t the first time the true impact of a novel product wasn’t realized until time and mass consumption had gone by. Cigarette smoking. Fossil fuel emissions. Drugs with fatal side effects in one-in-a-million patients.
Fortunately, the plastic pollution crisis presents all kinds of opportunities for new creative destruction. Constructive creative destruction, please.
1Fire allowed us to cook food and stay warm, increasing survival. Pasteurization was a process that made milk and other foods safer and allowed them to be transported further, increasing both the availability of food and the livelihood of producer. After the invention of the assembly line, cars became more accessible to different socio-economic groups and then expanded their horizons. Washing machines and other appliances are credited with allowing women the ability to lead a life outside the house, as it became possible to spend less than all of their time doing household chores. I don’t have to explain how email and mobile phones have changed the way we communicate, but future generations will need to be told.
2It piqued my interest when I saw it on a list of disruptive technologies in ‘Prediction Machines. The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence’ by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans and Avi Goldfarb, so thanks to them for making me think.
3For a great summary of the history of plastic, I recommend this https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics
4Kidding, kryptonite isn’t on the list, it isn’t real.