Daily Management Review

Plastic industry sneaking into new markets: roads, banknotes or even braces


Few materials have conquered new market segments faster and more aggressively than plastic. The oil-based material, which didn’t even exist a century ago, is now found in virtually every corner of our lives, from automobiles to computers, and from home appliances to clothing. But every market follows the rule “grow or die”, and the plastic industry is no different. How does one grow, when the world wants to get rid of you?

Pressure to push plastics back
The number of blames which the plastic industry endures is hard to fathom. Among the numerous motives for popular discontent, perhaps the mildest one lies simply in its nature. Plastic is one of a few materials we have generously at hand, to build things. It sits alongside stone, metal, wood, leather, paper and glass.  It is generally accepted that plastic sits at the bottom of the list, as all other materials provide a pleasing sensation, either to look at, or to touch. For this reason, doomsday prophets who announced that Kindles and other plastic-based electronic reading tablets would exterminate books in a matter or years were proven wrong. They had omitted to take into account the feel of paper on the fingertips, which readers were inconspicuously attached to. But this is only cosmetic, and the accusations towards plastic go far beyond not being eye candy.
Increasingly in this day and age, the carbon footprint of plastic is called into question. Plastic is oil-based, and therefore non sustainable. While that flew in Western societies in the 1950s (the concept of sustainability was hardly known at the time), it does no longer, and a little less every year. Environmental analyst Christopher Joyce writes : “Plastic is just a form of fossil fuel. Your plastic water bottle, your grocery bag, your foam tray full of cucumbers ... they're all made from oil or natural gas. It takes lots of energy to make that happen [...] First, there are gas leaks that occur at the wellheads. Then there are leaks from the pipelines that take oil and gas to a chemical plant. Then there's the lengthy chemical process of turning oil or gas into raw plastic resin. "Plastics is among the most energy-intensive materials to produce," Carroll Muffett says. Factories then use more energy to fashion the plastic into packaging or car parts or textiles. Trucking it around to consumers generates more emissions." All told, making things out of plastic takes considerably more energy than virtually any other material - something industries are precisely asked not to do anymore.
And if enough harm had not been done, the production of plastics is not where the problem ends. Plastics are primarily used for short-lived, disposable consumables. What is to become of a plastic object once it has served its short purpose? Well, the answer lies in the gigantic landfills that poison third-world countries, in the continental-sized plastic eddies which form in the oceans, and in wildlife’s stomachs. In a nutshell, we have produced so much plastic that getting rid of it now is virtually impossible - despite our best efforts. But this doesn’t mean the plastic industry is going to stop growing...
And yet, expansion hasn’t slowed
Indeed, every company in the world has one objective: growth and profitability.  While this is no crime, per se, it does negate humanity’s desire for a greener way-of-life. The first market which was targeted by the plastic industry was, of course, home appliances. Gradually, it came into automobiles, as the cheap material allowed to drop its price. Then clothing, with the famous 1970 and 1980s tracksuits. Then, the golden age of computers provided a new host for plastic expansion. So, what now? Well, pretty much everything. Plastics are now crawling into new environments which they had, until now, remained out of. Companies are now offering to make plastic roads as an alternative to asphalt. Orthodontic braces can be made out of plastic. Even banknotes - the list is endless. How does this happen?
Clever lobbying behind the growth
The simple answer is lobbying. The first rule, which is being followed strictly by the industry, is that “speaking of something makes it exist in the public’s eye”. For that reason, despite being one of the largest industries in the world, the plastic industry never addresses the public. Its unions, syndicates, and representative organizations are in touch with political circles and lawmakers, but always whisper and never speak up. As a simple test: the population can usually put a name and a face on an industry, if only through its most prominent members. Think: Steve Jobs is Mr. iPhone, Elon Musk is Mr. EV and Steven Spielberg is Mr. Movies. Try to think and come up with a Mr. Plastic. No one comes to mind? There you go. In mass communication, if the problem isn’t spoken of, then there is no problem.
But what if something must be said, such as on websites or sales document? In these cases, the words describing the new plastic products will be carefully chosen - something known as “greenwashing ”. Dezeen Marcus Fairs writes on the subject: “The growing misuse of language is unhelpful to members of the public who want to make informed purchasing choices. It is also unhelpful to designers, who are already grappling with "designers' paradox". This is the moral hazard central to their profession: how can they most effectively mitigate the damage caused by all the consumable stuff they bring into the world? Especially since all that stuff is the biggest contributor to climate change.” For instance, new plastic banknotes - are sold under the name “polymer banknote”. Indeed, the word “polymer” evokes high technology, whereas the term “plastic”, which it is, conjures up images of pollution and landfills. Such vocabulary engineering is necessary, if one wants the masses to accept giving up regular banknotes, made of paper and cotton, for plastic ones.
The silence of the plastic industry should not be mistaken for what it is not: despite saying nothing against the waves of environmentalism which grow ever larger in our societies, the plastic industry is not accepting it, and its objectives remain the same: grow. And, to that effect, it will use the same techniques as any other company would. By rebranding and renaming its products with greener words, it hopes that plastic will become more, not less, a part of our lives.