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Driver's Seat
The advent of all things plastic
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A famous scene in the 1967 movie “The Graduate” shows a well-meaning older friend advising the recent college graduate Ben (Dustin Hoffman) of a career path to follow. His one-word counsel: “Plastics.”

Ben didn’t follow the man’s suggestion, but many other people did. Today we are approaching the time when almost every object we buy, large or small, is encased in some form of plastic. And it may drive sensitive souls like me crazy before we’re done.

I’ve begun reading a novel by John Sandford. When I read, I often snack. Today I put down the novel long enough to arm myself with some crackers and hummus. Before I could dip into the newly purchased hummus, I had to open the plastic container it came in. Years ago you just lifted off the lid; it was a tight but manageable fit, and it seemed to keep out all known diseases. But today the lid is further sealed with an almost invisible ring of paper-thin plastic. This requires me to find a knife with a potentially lethal point slender enough to be inserted under the plastic ring to pop it loose. The ring is clear and colorless; my eyes are old. It took me several minutes and many cusswords to find and slice the #@!! ring.

Why are such additional rings necessary? Are there terrorists out there ready to insert ricin in every jar of food? And why isn’t the food industry consistent with its plastic? The hummus had a ring, but a big jar of applesauce I opened on the same day did not. Its white top was plastic, but it easily unscrewed. Who decides these things?

Today’s electronic gadgets should come with a huge “DANGER” label attached, because of the risk you take when you attempt to break open the rugged plastic casing that surrounds the mice, flash drives, plugs and cords you must have to make your computer work. To open these objects I have used butcher knives, heavy-duty scissors and screwdrivers. Just one slip of the hand can bring a wound of epic proportions, with memorable bloodletting. But do the manufacturers of these attachments worry about that? Obviously not.

I hear all sorts of alarms about global warming, but I seldom hear an objection to the increase of plastic in our lives. Except for fishermen and other wildlifers. Every day they see what plastic trash does to fish, pelicans, herons and other creatures that ingest or get fatally entangled in the stuff that thoughtless slobs toss into the water from their docks or boats.

Efforts to recycle products made of paper and other materials have increased in recent years, but most forms of plastic cannot be recycled. Their ultimate destination is often a landfill. If civilization endures long enough, most of the world’s people will one day live on top of a landfill.

Our love affair with plastic may bring other changes. Here are a few possibilities:

PLASTIC-WRAPPED NEWBORNS. Medical scientists will find a way to wrap a fetus in plastic during the fifth month of pregnancy. This will ensure that the baby faces fewer biological dangers at the moment of birth.

PLASTIC KISSES. In their early courtship as they kiss, men and women will cover their lips in plastic to ward off contamination, real or imagined. As true love and commitment emerge between a couple, they will discard their plastic lip covers and smooch bareback, or bare-lipped. It will be known as plastic-free osculation.

MOST FLOWERS WILL BE PLASTIC. As technology advances, plastic flowers will become even more lovely and desirable than nature’s own. The plastic blooms will be imbued with appropriate odors, and will last for weeks. They will cost less than real flowers, whose prices will skyrocket.

FAKE DIAMONDS. Plastics scientists will eventually learn to make jewelry that is just as brilliant and enduring as diamonds. Not even professional jewelers will be able to tell the difference. The day will come when people will scoff at the old show business tune, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” The new slogan will be “Plastic is forever.”

Okay, enough griping for today. Although I do bemoan the increasing, almost promiscuous use of plastic as a universal sealant, I must acknowledge this truth: without the discovery and development of plastic, our lives would be primitive beyond recognition. In the small city of Leominster, Mass., about 40 miles west of Boston, the National Plastics Museum stands as a monument to the blessings that plastic – in a thousand different ways – has made possible. In medicine, alone, plastic devices have saved and extended countless lives. Sadly, the museum is now closed; most Americans would rather be entertained than well informed. Still, plastic will remain a dominant factor in our culture, whether as heart valves or coffee spoons.

Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Clearwater Sun. Send him an email at
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