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Topic section: Resistance to plastics
Resistance to plastics
The all-plastic environment predicted in the 1940s has not yet arrived. Why did it never happen?
Picture: 03_10305224.jpg
The outer casing of most PCs, PC monitors and keyboards are made of high-impact polystyrene, a mainstream plastic material, but we would never talk about using a plastic computer.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 For all the successes of plastics during the twentieth century, the all-plastic utopian home predicted by the plastic industry never materialised. We still have wooden furniture (nowadays mainly pine from IKEA), wool carpets, glass windows, wallpaper and even cut-glass vases. Our sofas are more likely to be real leather than moulded plastic. So what went wrong?

To a large extent, the reasons are both practical and commercial.

When plastics work they are invisible

 To create an all-plastic house for everyone would be both difficult and ultimately expensive. Clip-on plastic sheets might be more hardwearing and easier to clean, but they would also be awkward to install and more expensive than traditional wallpaper or paint. We would also get quickly bored looking at the same panels all the time.
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This pair of black open weave beach shoes (made in 1985) is the kind of product, which, although both cheap and practical, gives plastics a bad name. The mass production of similar products in the 1950s and 1960s did much to turn the public against the use of plastics in the home.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Plastics did not expand into a vacuum. Manufacturers of traditional products, be it wooden furniture or woollen carpets, were not going to disappear without putting up a fight. The solution was often a blend of the old and new: wool carpets with a polypropylene backing; or furniture constructed from a plastic shell and wooden panels.

Even if the all-plastic home is viable, most of us would be uncomfortable living in it. Apart from the genuine discomfort engendered by some plastics, as anyone who has sat in a moulded plastic chair for any length of time can testify, plastic has always suffered from an image problem. Initially this arose from traditional notions of class and taste. The image of plastics as tacky and low-class was massively reinforced by the tidal wave of cheap, badly made plastic goods in the late 1940s and 1950s.
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The Michelin man is a powerful advertising icon, and who can resist his cheery grin? Nevertheless advertising gimmicks such as this plastic ashtray produced in the 1940s contributed to the negative image of plastics, although now they have become a design icon.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Deep-seated anxieties about new technologies have settled on plastics over the years, ranging from worries about babies suffocating in plastic bags to plasticisers in PVC toys. More recently, concerns about the environment have also worked against plastics, sometimes unfairly. Wood, wool and cotton also have ecological implications.

Crucially, plastics have never been clearly defined in the public’s mind. A nasty PVC mac, tacky artificial daffodils or a worthless fairground prize are ‘plastic’, whereas the casing on your latest PC or the carbon-fibre tiles used in the space shuttle are ‘space-age materials’. When plastics work they are invisible; it is only when they offend us in some way that we aware that they are plastics. The dream – or nightmare – of the all-plastic home lives on, but its realisation seems as far away as ever. Yet as plastics slip under our cultural radar and quietly fulfil their roles in our homes, we move ever closer to its ultimate fulfilment.
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Topic section: Plastic dreams
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Since the 1920s, the plastics industry has promoted the concept of a ‘Plastic Age’, portraying plastics as the solution to many of our problems, the material that ensures that hitherto expensive items are available to all, ‘a democracy of luxury’.  > more

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Topic section: Plastic success
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Plastics have been successful: they have entered our homes and are useful in many different ways. Even if we do not live in a plastic paradise, the hype was not completely wrong. Even the Queen uses Tupperware.  > more
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