Q&A: A Word With You, Please? ‘Plastics’

March 25, 2024 By Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu

In the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” there is a prophetic moment when Mr. McGuire (played by Walter Brooke) takes Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) aside at Benjamin’s college graduation party to give him a word of advice.

“Plastics,” Brooke’s character says as Benjamin stares vacantly, trying to understand. “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”

Nearly 60 years later, everyone is thinking about it. From pill bottles and battery packaging to frozen fish and soft drink bottles, it seems like everything comes wrapped in plastics. And plastic is everywhere, including landfills, roadside ditches and the middle of oceans. 

Recently at the University of Virginia, the School of Architecture convened a group of national experts to discuss the opportunities and challenges of repurposing plastics with an eye toward a sustainable future.

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Funded by the Jefferson Trust and the office of the Vice Provost for the Arts, the symposium, “Being Plastic/Becoming Plastic,” included an exhibition at Campbell Hall’s Elmaleh Gallery. The display lasts through Wednesday and features works by researchers, designers and students studying innovations in plastic through scalable fabrication techniques.

UVA Today reached out to Ehsan Baharlou, the assistant professor who led the symposium and curated the exhibition, to talk about one word: plastics.

Q. Plastic was once considered a miracle creation, but now it’s become the bane of the environment, filling landfills and flooding the ocean. How did we get to this point? 

Ehsan Baharlou

Ehsan Baharlou, the assistant professor who led the symposium, said plastics “have enriched all aspects of life with beauty and ugliness.” (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

A. The history of humans and their environmental impact can be understood through the development of plastic production. Plastics were heralded as a milestone in human ingenuity because of their ability to outlast existing alternatives such as glass, metal and ceramics. They are flexible, durable and cost-effective. 

Plastics, however, have outlasted their initial uses. Obsessed with this toxic innovation, we cannot imagine a world without plastics. They have enriched all aspects of life with beauty and ugliness. One day, we perceived being plastic, and today, we are losing ourselves to becoming plastic.

Q. How many different types of plastic are there?

A. We have three class systems of plastics: thermosets, thermoplastics and elastomers.

We have seven types of recyclable plastic that we use every day. You can check their number whenever you pick up a plastic bag or a plastic cup. Their recyclability varies. Some of them can easily be recycled, while others are rarely recycled and end up in landfills.

Q. There is a lot of talk and effort to recycle plastic, but there are also reports that recycling simply doesn’t work because it is not cost-effective. Does recycling work? 

A. Even if recycling doesn’t work – which requires scientific facts to support this claim – we must change our linear understanding of ‘take-make-dispose-of’ plastics as raw materials, products and disposal waste.

At the local level, we can start with our UVA community. Have you visited the recycling division of UVA? UVA’s 2020-30 Sustainability Plan aims to reduce the disposal of waste in our community by 30% from where we were in 2010.

Two plastic art decors
Along with the symposium, an exhibition displayed work that researchers, designers and students created, studying innovations in plastic through scalable fabrication techniques. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

On a global level, we can benefit from approaches such as the circular economy, in which we introduce a circular method of reduce-reuse-recycle to minimize the extraction of raw materials and the disposal of residual waste. This can be achieved through recycling, upcycling and downcycling waste materials.

In the context of plastics, upcycling involves reusing plastic waste. If the recycling process and upcycling are not effective, downcycling (where the recycled material is of lower quality and functionality than the original) plastic is another option.

Q. You recently convened a symposium titled “Being Plastic/Becoming Plastic.” What does it mean to “become plastic?” 

A. It depends on how we interpret the term plastic. Is it an adjective or is it a noun?

Plastics have infiltrated our world, and they can now be found in the soil, air, water and our bodies. Are we gradually becoming plastic?

Plastics are a defining feature of the Anthropocene. In the second session of the symposium, we invited audience members to consider alternative processing and approaches to creating a better world, a world that we can shape with new models and methods of fabrication. We invited them to think about other plastic materials, shifting from polymer-based plastic toward bio-based plastic, with greater degradability and less environmental impact.

In conclusion, we must become plastic in how we live with the material.

Media Contact

Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications