Plastic

November 05, 2021

It was mid-October of last year when we first installed the 10-mil plastic on our screened porch to create a makeshift greenhouse for Melissa’s succulents.  We worried about freezing throughout the winter and used a space heater on the porch when it got too cold.  While the outside overnight temps dipped as low as -20F (-28.8C), the temperature on the porch never got below 24F (-4.4C).  Although several of our inground succulents suffered, most that we had covered survived.  I cannot say as much for protecting the inside plants during the summer.  Melissa was unable to care for them for long stretches and we lost about a third of our plants to heat, disease, and on the outside to ants.  I was glad when the weather cooled off, but now it has jumped from too hot to near freezing at night.  We reinstalled the plastic on the porch this week and are beginning the cycle once more, albeit this time with more confidence.

When I looked online, I found that plastic consists of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that use polymers as a main ingredient.  Their plasticity makes it possible for the plastic to be molded, extruded, or pressed into solid objects of various shapes.  This adaptability, plus the plastic being lightweight, durable, flexible, and inexpensive to produce, has led to widespread use.  Dozens of different types of plastic are produced, such as polyethylene, which is widely used in packaging, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used in construction and pipes because of its strength and durability.  While most modern plastic is derived from fossil fuel-based chemicals, recent industrial methods use variants made from renewable materials, such as corn or cotton derivatives.  Worldwide, about 22.7 pounds (50 kg) of plastic is produced annually per person, with production doubling every ten years.

Melissa offered to help put up the plastic for our windows again this year.  Last year I had finished most of the labor-intensive parts of the process, like cutting the plastic sheets and designing and placing the Velcro on the windows and plastic.  When I took down the plastic last year, I marked the upper corner so I could tell which sheet belonged where.  Then I had stored the plastic on the porch and hoped it would be usable for one or two more years.  I was surprised by the durability of both the plastic and the Velcro straps that held the greenhouse together.  We only encountered minor repairs and the sheets rehung easily.  With Melissa’s help, the job that took several days last year took less than 30 minutes.

Thoughts:  While the slow decomposition rate in my screens allowed me to reuse the plastic, this same feature has caused widespread environmental problems.  Toward the end of the 20th century, the plastic industry promoted recycling to ease environmental concerns, yet continued to produce virgin plastic.  Since the main plastic producing companies doubted the economic viability of recycling, the viability has never improved.  Plastic collection and recycling are largely ineffective because of the complexity to clean and sort post-consumer plastic for effective reuse.  Most plastic produced ends in landfills or persists as plastic pollution, including much of the “recyclable” plastic.  Plastic pollution can be found in all the world’s major water bodies, creating garbage patches in all the world’s oceans, and contaminating terrestrial ecosystems.  We can no longer afford a throwaway society.  If you make it, you should be required to collect it, or find an alternative.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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