Folks, this is about my "consumption" of plastic over the next year. I'm looking at what I have, what I buy, and why I seem to need this hundred and fifty year old man-made concoction more than my mother's fried chicken.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Week 13: PS (#6)

I'm feeling very stream of consciousness right now, so don't expect any sort of transitional sentences. If you find one, it was probably an accident.

I have this childhood memory. My family gets some appliance that is wrapped in a warm blanket of Styrofoam end pieces and a large cardboard box. Once the appliance is out, my 7 year-old brother works like a rabid squirrel to craft the cardboard box into a fort for himself and his band of little plastic army guys. And then, for some strange reason, he shreds the Styrofoam into little tiny pieces.

Did he need more snow in his life? Would it serve as cover for he and his men in the imaginary tundra? My brother also went through a phase of slashing bananas on the kitchen counter while no one was looking--his own interpretation of Zorro, I think. You'll all be relieved to know that my brother is a fully functioning member of society. He has lots of good friends and is living happily in Los Angeles. He long ago gave up slashing bananas once he realized how tasty they were, but I haven't checked in with him on the destructive tendencies towards the plastic of the week.

Polystyrene: #6, white dragon, evil cloud, Styrofoam (Dow's brand), snow clams, burger blankets, cacahuate blancos, snowman poop...CD jewel cases & clear salad to-go containers are also made of PS, but I'm not going to focus on these (although this was new to me!)

Many folks don't even know polystyrene is a form of plastic, but it is by far the easiest to identify. If you don't know what it is, just check out the big white chunks included in this week's plastic pile. I swear I didn't plan it this way. My husband bought two garbage bins and he asked if the store could take back the polystyrene cushions because he knew I would give him "the look" when he got home. Even after he told them about the blog, they still looked at him as if he had 6 heads and refused to take the packaging back. So, now I am left with large chunks of my LEAST favorite plastic. I am experiencing my first real plastidepression. This is the first week that I have not been able to fit my week's worth of plastic into my tidy little milk crate. Foiled by the ostentatious, extruded "possible" carcinogen, #6. PS...I hate you. I'm beginning to understand the shredding tendencies...

So, let's revisit our friends at the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group (AKA, the American Chemistry Council). The PFPG touts polystyrene's sturdiness, cleanliness, convenience, and affordability (especially for those low income schools on a tight budget). In other words, if it weren't for polystyrene, the proverbial cafeteria lady would still have a job, we'd have less garbage output each day, and we'd have to eat food made by...people. Ick.

SO, I get it. I'm not completely blind. If a school wants to save money, they outsource their lunch program and to the untrained eye, they save loads of money looking through the foggy lenses of traditional economics. And it looks something like this:
  1. Mr. Delivery Man from Acme National Food dollies up milk crates loaded with neatly stacked #6 trays of food.
  2. These food trays are grouped by classroom and student couriers work in tandem with a very part-time "food coordinator" to get the trays delivered to each child.
  3. The sectioned food trays may contain: a white bagel (wrapped in plastic), a piece of fruit, a single-serve plastic bowl of Frosted Flakes or Cheerios, a pint of whole milk, and a plastic bag containing a napkin and plastic spoon (made of PS too) & straw.
  4. Students eat the bagel and the dry cereal and wash it all down with a sip of milk as they slam dunk their tray, utensils, napkin, packaging AND fruit into the garbage can.
  5. And that's just breakfast. We do the whole routine over again for lunch.
Considering this school had about 300 kids with around 90% on the lunch program, let's have fun making generalizations with arithmetic:
30 % of 300 = 270 students

270 x 2 polystyrene trays/day = 540 trays/day

540 trays x 5 days = 2,700 trays/week

540 trays x 185 school days = 99,900 trays to the incinerator each year.

99,900 x 67,291 (# of US public elementary schools) = 6.7 billion polystyrene trays to the GAR-BAHJ.

Just ONE KID has the potential to add up to 2,200 trays to that dinky classroom trash can throughout her/his K-5 experience.
(185 school days x 6 = 1,110 days x 2 trays/day)
This is, of course rough & speculative math...but it's fun, right? And that's just trays. Now, let's do the calculation for spoons & straws...just kidding.

Looking through the lenses of TRUE COSTS of this kind of a program, we have to consider many more factors in our equation that are currently currently considered externalities, but I digress.

Bottom line? Viva la Wonder Woman & Beatles Lunch boxes! Easier said than done for parent(s) working two jobs and coming home after their kids...

ANYWAY--back to the white dragon. I heard a story 10 years or so ago about a squiggly white anomaly seen from SPACE in China. The tale goes that it was a stream of polystyrene along the main train line. Anyone heard that story?

Like the majority of plastics, the economics of recycling polystyrene doesn't make much sense according to the ACC, BUT there are folks out there working to counter that argument. Check out this photo. It BLOWS my mind. Ah, the beauty of polystyrene...never as heavy as it looks.

I got this photo (and the two below) from a very interesting website:
Does anyone remember Shrinky Dinks? OK, so basically Styromelt (UK based) does something similar. It appears to market to businesses with large amounts of polystyrene waste. I WOULD LOVE to see them shrink this:
Into this:and then sell it to recyclers for use as diesel fuel or material for garden furniture?

There's also a publicly traded company in Florida recycling/reclaiming polystyrene through a different process. Blue Earth Solutions--scroll down the page to check out their video here.

If you click on anything from this post--CLICK HERE, tilt your neck 9o degrees and read page 3 of this document from the Department of Conservation in Cal-ee-fohn-yah. I've had my hunches about scrap value, but it's nice to see the numbers side by side--make sure you look at the value of polystyrene.

Generally, curbside recycling programs MAY take your polystyrene, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it is NOT recycled (right along with your yogurt containers and your #7's.) Once again, stop trying to make yourself feel better by stacking your recycling bin to the brim with the assumption that the magical recycling fairies will turn them all into park benches for sweet little old ladies. It ain't happenin' least not for the time being. Do yourself a favor and try and tap into what you buy, what you need, what you want. Will you die if you never drink out of a Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup again?

On the note of Dunkin Deezee's--I have to include one short rant. Why the &^%$ do they serve their iced coffee in a plastic cup and then slip it into a polystyrene cup? I'll tell you why. It's because human hands must NEVER be cold...not ever...because if they get cold, discomfort comes quickly. And once that discomfort sets in, everyone knows that death is sure to follow. I've seen it happen too many times. So, the next time you order an iced coffee (if you can call it coffee), just say--"I don't need the Styrofoam sleeve...I live life on the edge, my friend."

This practice is ridiculously excessive and they should only double cup it if people ask...and they should be taxed on it. We'll call it the Rachel Ray Pansy Hands Tax.

TRY THIS AT HOME: I found this on Grinning Planet. The next time you inherit some polystyrene, try squeezing some fresh lemon on it, let it sit, and see what happens. I haven't tried this yet, so I would love to know what happens...

I'll close with a childhood song:
"Oh, give me a home
Made of white Styrofoam.
Where the plasphalt paves our new way.
Where seldom is heard a sweet song from a bird
Cuz the air we breathe has tuned dark gray."
(Sunnye's bastardization of Higley & Kelley's original song "Home on the Range")

And with that, I bid you a fantastic week as my styrofoam stream of consciousness screeches to a halt at 12:25 am.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Week 12: PP (#5)

So, here it is...the 3 month plastic collection:

What do you think? Here are a few observations so far...
  • I have consumed the contents of 25 snack bar packages.
  • I have collected 26 lids and 39 caps of varying shapes and sizes.
  • I have struggled with the new knowledge that a thin layer of plastic coats a ton of stuff I've been tossing out (rice milk cartons, just about all labels, and pasta boxes, to name a few). So, I'm kind of feeling like a pansy.
  • In total, I have collected 501 plastic items. (In 90 days!)
All righty then--let's look at PP, or Polypropylene. I don't think many of us really think about PP on a daily basis. I mean, I don't...until I recently discovered that my nemesis, THE DRINKING STRAW is made from polypropylene! Drinking & PP? I see all sorts of sick middle school jokes stemming from this...

Anyone have any idea what straws used to be made of? Yes, wax & paper, but even before then. I'll give you a hint: it has to do with the NAME. Give up? It is very likely that drinking straws used to be made from...straw. I know. It boggles the mind. Given that we devote our world wheat production (600 million tons in 2007) to things like bread, pasta, fried chicken, donuts & beer, it is understandable why the original drinking straw got the shaft. After all, you can't make beer from PP. Ah, the jokes.

Polypropylene is basically a beaded necklace of propylene gas molecules, which is turned into powder and then pellets/nurdles and then whatever you want from there. . You may remember polypropylene from such films as:
  • The Margarine Falcon
  • One Flew Over the Yogurt Container
  • Dr. Propylene: How I learned to stop worrying and love the AstroTurf
  • Requiem for a Drinking Straw.
  • Sisterhood of the Travel Mug Lid
  • Raiders of the Lost Carpet Backing
  • All About Flip Top Caps
  • In the Heat of the Long Underwear
  • 12 Angry Food Labels
  • The Suture Redemption
  • There Will Be Pasta Bags
  • Candy Wrapper Named Desire
  • The Treasure of the Rubik's Cube Stickers
  • The Magnificent Medicine Bottle
  • Eternal Tupperware of the Spotless Mind
  • Million Dollar Baby Diaper
  • The Lord of the Kitchen: The Fellowship of the Appliances
  • Car Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Durable Interiors
  • No Country for Photo Sleeves
...Just to name a few.

But let's talk about AstroTurf for just a bit. I've been sick all weekend and am still not feeling great, so I promise this won't take long.

It's plastic grass....PLASTIC GRASS. See, I feel like I've always known what AstroTurf was because Putt-Putt golf was a part of my childhood. What I did not know is that synthetic grass was invented in the decade of plastics (the 1950's) by 2 guys from a little company that invented saccharine in 1901. They're called Monsanto...ever heard of them? Anyway, a subsidiary of Monsanto known as Chemstrand put their noses to the grindstone to develop this plastic grass specifically for urban playing fields. So, their first installation of "Chemgrass" happens in 1964 at the Moses Brown School, a college prep school in Providence, RI. Something tells me that a name like "Chemgrass" might not sell as well today as it did back then. A couple of years later it is installed in the Astrodome in my hometown of Houston, TX and finds a new name: AstroTurf.

I had a hard time finding anything substantial on the economic feasibility of recycling PP, but the Australians seem to be working on that. As with most, if not all plastics, PP can really only be downcycled into other plastic products. However, with a little creativity one can create some pretty interesting pieces of functional art from polypropylene rope. Check this out and have a nice day.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Week 11: LDPE (#4)

I found this interesting excerpt from the American Plastics Council's website (which is a division of the American Chemistry Council):

MYTH: Our city would be solving its litter problem by banning plastic bags.

REALITY: In effect, banning recyclable plastic bags will not significantly reduce litter or the amount of waste in our sewers and landfills. Litter problems must be addressed directly by targeting littering and providing recycling and waste bins. Banning a certain product will only cause a switch from one form of litter to another. There is no such thing as environmentally preferable litter. Such approaches merely create new problems.

Keep in mind that the members of the APC include Advance Polybag, Inc., The Dow Chemical Company, Exxonmobil Corporation, Hilex Poly Co., LLC, Inteplast, Superbag Corporation, and Total Petrochemicals USA, Inc. Advance Polybag HQ is close to where I grew up (not to mention a few of these other members). Located in Sugarland, TX, they are one of the largest manufacturers of plastic bags in the world and the only hint of environmental responsibility I could find on their website was an association with NextLife Recycling in an effort to make plastic stepping stones out of recycled bags. However, I discovered that NextLife is no longer in business. However, they do work with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children by printing photos of the missing on their bags. Hilex Poly Co. is a little greener to the eye. They acknowledge that litter is an issue and that only 5% of plastic bags are actually recycled and they offer concrete solutions to dealing with the issues (unlike most politicians!) Bottom line? It seems from everyone's current home pages--even Exxonmobil that being socially and environmentally responsible is (at the very least) on their radar.

Obviously it is easy for me to sit in judgment of all these big corporations and accuse them all of greenwashing. The truth is...I just don't know what to believe anymore. Sheesh...have I already started my diatribe?

Let's focus on the LDPE at hand...
LDPE, numero cuatro, low-density polyethylene. According to one website, #4 is the most widely used plastic due to it's flexibility, durability, chemical resistance, and cost. How do we apply thee? Let me count the ways:
  • coating on paper, textiles, & other plastics ("Tetra-pak" used for some milk, rice, soy, almond milk containers, maybe all my corn chip bags too...)
  • various disposable bowls, lids, etc.
  • packaging film (you know, like the thin stuff you peel off of chicken, cheese, & tons of other crap wrapped in filmy plastic goodness)
  • shrink wrap
  • disposable diaper flaps
  • bread bags
  • honey bear bottles
  • power cables
  • caps & closures
  • garment bags
  • disposable table "cloths"
  • stand-up transparent zip pouches (I think I get my dog's treats in these types of bags--Trader Joe's carries a lot of their products in these!)
  • cycling water bottles
  • toys
  • various lab containers & bags (biohazard bags)
  • lip gloss wands
  • garbage bags & other bin liners
  • play pit balls (you know, like the plastic ball "pool" at Chucky Cheese? I've always wanted to know this!)
  • "Caution wet floor" cones (Cuidado piso mojado!)
  • traffic cones
  • bubble wrap ("Bubbles! Bubbles! Bubbles!")
  • coffee cup inner coating (your coffee cup is not really recyclable by the way--hate to burst your LDPE bubble)
  • plastic bags
  • safety flotation rings
  • outdoor repair tape
  • medical shoe coverings
  • heavy duty plastic drums
  • wet ports (What is a wet port, you ask? Something we clearly CANNOT live without. You can ask me to cut corners during wartime, but I ain't givin' up my wet port!)
  • packing foam sheets (usually what you get when you buy new electronics)
  • Heatsheet emergency survival blanket
  • ...and anything else you see at the grocery and wonder, "I wonder what kind of plastic this wrap is". Chances are, it's probably LDPE.
LDPE is the free spirit of the plastics family. Their make up is such that they branch out, they go with the flow, and may be less confined to structure, but have a varied skill set, which makes them more resilient, but not a good candidate for redundant reuse. Ah yes, a new ice breaker at staff retreats: "If I were a plastic, I would be number blah, blah, blah because of it's refusal to be broken down by even the toughest challenges."

We use 2 kg of oil for every 1 kg of LDPE we produce and not surprisingly, the US & China tie for first in consuming almost half of the world's LDPE. W. Europe comes in as a close second. The world market for LDPE is projected to reach 20 million metric tons by 2012. According to my animal conversion calculator, that is the equivalent of 150,000 blue whales OR 73 million gorillas. (As a side note, we only have about 100,000 actual gorillas left in the world)

All this animal conversion calculating makes me think of a wise old sage...
What would Dr. Seuss say? Let us imagine...

I do not like those plastic bags...
They seem to make the turtles gag.

I do not like them in a tree.
I do not like them blowing free.
I do not like them in a store.
I do not like them anymore!

I do not like this plastic crap...
From drinking straws to bubble wrap.

I do not like them in a boat.
I do not like them in a goat.
I do not like them as they float.
I do not like them in my coat!
I do not like them on a floor,
I do not like them anymore!

Not on a beach
Or with a peach.
Not in the air
Or in my hair.
Not in a drain
Or in a plane.
Not in a turtle
Not even a nurdle.

I do not like these plastic things...
Or all the piles of waste it brings.
I do not like them for the earth
I have not liked them since my birth!

I do not like them
So I say...
but I still use them every day!
So, if I look and dig real deep
Will I learn from what I keep?

Yes, I'll learn!
Yes, I say!
My plastic never goes away...

So, if I keep it
I will see
just how much I think I "need".

Stay tuned for next week's photo of my entire plastics collection!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Week 10: PVC (#3)

As an appetizer, please enjoy this great link to a PVC Noir Cartoon from the Grassroots Recycling Network.

Polyvinyl chloride, or vinyl is one of the most dangerous substances ever made according to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. You know how sometimes you can have a friend or a co-worker who is really cool & nice in the beginning, and she does all these really great things for you? And you're like, "OMG! This co-worker is so fantastic and does all these really great things for me!" And then, as time goes by she totally stabs you in the back by giving you cancer. That's like PVC.

As a disclaimer, I'm not even attempting to be objective about PVC. We need some serious reflection & rethinking on this material. I applaud the mantra of "do no harm", but I have higher expectations for my species. We should look at every material with a "do good" mantra. Does PVC do good?

We got a new heating system this week and as I was working on last week's post, something foul wafted up through the basement. I later found out that it was likely PVC cement. I gather this is not something I want to spread on my morning multi-grain toast. I went downstairs and saw the familiar white 4 inch pipes weaving through the other dark spaghetti of pipes that float overhead. It's so hard to imagine something so benign-looking and apparently indispensable to modern heating & plumbing can be so harmful. Last year, the humans of the world used about 35 million metric tons of PVC (the rough equivalent of about 250,000 blue whales).

When I think of PVC, the white pipe always comes to mind, but we have basically surrounded ourselves with PVC. Here is a list of some potentially vinylicious products:
  • shower curtains (my co-worker is frowning right now...I can feel it.)
  • ceiling tiles
  • carpet backing
  • upholstery fabric
  • window treatments
  • children's clothing (Greenpeace study on Disney clothing)
  • toys
  • inflatable pools
  • fake leather bags
  • garden hoses
  • blood bags, medical tubing and a variety of other medical supplies
  • home siding, flooring, roofing & windows
  • gutters
  • electrical wire
  • cable insulation
  • credit cards
  • records (ancestor of the iPod)
  • commercial signage (trade show banners, car magnets, decals, lettering...)
  • Barbie, Ken & Skipper too.
  • Jelly Glitter Bell Boots...for horses. I'm not kidding.
  • Jump ropes (did you know there is a Jump Rope Institute?)
The Vinyl Institute (which coincidentally has a little blurb about the importance of PVC in aquariums) is based in Arlington, VA has been working hard to carry out the vision for 27 years:
"Vinyl is the global plastic of choice for infrastructure and diverse applications."
Is that a vision or a command?

Anyway, the VI "is a U.S. trade association representing the leading manufacturers of vinyl, vinyl chloride monomer, vinyl additives and modifiers, and vinyl packaging materials." According to the VI, vinyl saves lives and is the backbone of modern medicine. They also have a very organized and vague list which comprises their commitment to health, safety & the environment. But the question remains: how can you have ANY commitment to the environment when the core product you promote contains and emits harmful byproducts throughout its entire life cycle? Once again, is there a way to make PVC good for the earth?

PVC is a tireless giver. It freely donates to earth, water, and air: mercury, phthalates, and dioxins or more simply translated into "brain fry", "likely cancer", and "cancer." This is our entree for the evening. I like to call it the "death kabob."

Mercury. What a fantastically mesmerizing element. It's a car, it's a god, it's a surf apparel brand, and it's a wicked cute planet. If you are looking for a reliable and permanent neurotoxin, mercury is the drug of choice. Also, I just discovered something disturbing. Although many cosmetic companies are phasing out the input of mercury in their products, it still happens. Minnesota is the only state in the US to ban mercury-containing cosmetics (namely mascara). I really want to open the cosmetics-ingredients-labels can-o-worms, but I refrain. I'm already on a tangent. Maybe that will be my next blog. But ladies, thespians, clowns, and cross-dressers, please check out this link--it's awesome.

Phthalates (THAL-8's). I'm going to call them "8's" for short. There are 21 different types of commonly used 8's and 90% of all 8's are funneled into the making of PVC. It's a plasticizer, which is like yoga for vinyl, making it nice & flexible (think barbie heads). Can we assume a direct relationship between phthalates and phlexibility? For instance, does vinyl siding have a higher 8 content than the pipes underneath your sink? I'm not certain. According to the Phthalates Information Center, 8's "make our lives better and safer...and they make our homes more decorative..." The PIC also attempts to reassure us that "many independent reviews have declared them to be safe as used in toys and cosmetics." Phew, because I can't imagine what I would do if they banned the ingredient that makes my nail polish resistant to chipping. I might die. The Phthalates Info Center doesn't state outright that 8's are not harmful, and they repeat the idea throughout their site that 8's are innocent until proven guilty...all 21 of them I guess.

Dioxins. DIE...oxins. Heck of a name. Dioxins show up when the PVC is burned accidentally during manufacture or in the disposal process. If it's got chlorine in it, it's going to have dioxins coming out of it. Dioxins, also referred to as PBT's (persistent bioaccumulative toxicants)--sounds yummy, doesn't it? Mmmmm, toxicants...Not to sound too morbid, but you have dioxins swimming around in you right now. Prove me wrong--please...I really want to be wrong on this one. I think this equation sums it up nicely:
Take home message? Don't stand around staring at house & car fires like those folks on the 10 O'Clock news. House fires suck--don't make it worse by inhaling your toilet plumbing or glove compartment. Run Forest, run.

According to ICIS (please tell me what the acronym stands for--I couldn't find it on their website), "...Sears Holding, the parent corporation of retail giants Sears and Kmart, announced it would be joining Target, Wal-Mart, Microsoft and several other large retail-oriented companies in phasing out PVC." The US Green Building Council has also given PVC two thumbs down citing it as one of the most hazardous materials on the market. FOX News however, loves PVC and believes that Love Canal was a bunch of hype.

There are 4 major companies that manufacture PVC in the US.
  1. Formosa Plastics is out of Taiwan and just last Wednesday, the company made the news because they were fined over $100,000 for repeated environmental violations at one of their plants in Point Comfort, TX. This is chump change for a $5 billion a year business.
  2. Shintech, a subsidiary of a Japanese based company is the largest producer of PVC in the US and they are located in Plaquemine, LA...yet another southern state and another landmark on "Cancer Alley's" sightseeing tour. 10 years earlier, Shintech's plans to build the plant were smothered by citizen protests of environmental racism.
  3. OxyChem/Occidental, headquartered in Dallas, TX also claims that they are the leading manufacturer of PVC in the US. Al Gore has an interesting old connection with Oxy, aside from being a shareholder. In 1996, he apparently brokered the deal for Occidental to buy traditional lands from the Kitanemuk in Southern California, but that's another tangent.
  4. Georgia Gulf is headquartered in Atlanta, GA and they specialize in chlorovinyl and aromatics production. They are neighbors with Shintech in Plaquemine, LA and Formosa in southeast Texas.

PVC RECYCLING: In Cooper City, FL National Recycling can recycle pretty much any kind of plastic (including PVC), but I'm not clear on whether or not they would take a bucket full of pipes if I walked up to their security gate. I found an interesting bit from a Recycling Today article about a subsidiary of Georgia-Gulf, Royal Group Technologies, Ltd., a PVC manufacturer in Ontario, Canada who bought an Italian-designed "regrinder" to process their own PVC scrap as well as their customers' scrap. It's a closed-loop system and wouldn't you know? It saves them money. Alas, most of the PVC waste in the US, Europe & Australia is shoved off on "all those other countries" to deal with, and wouldn't you know? Many of those countries just happen to have less restrictions on materials disposal. I was only able to find 2 stats on the percentage of PVC that is actually recycled and both estimated a whopping 0.5%.

I feel like I can just keep going with this one. There is a TON of information to sift through regarding this material. If you take anything away from this post (other than a great site to buy glitter boots for horses), know that PVC #3 is a questionable material and a contaminant in your recycling bin AT BEST.

Closing questions:
What kind of relationship do you have with PVC?
What PVC items can you phase out of your life?

Closing Haiku about PVC:
PVC and me
Do I really need this crap?
Does it give me life?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Week 9: #2 HDPE

Just in case anyone is interested, I thought I would report out on a few observations so far...
  1. I average about 25 plastic items a week, except for last week. I had 100 items (half of which were band-aids as you can make out in the photo. They were part of my Halloween costume...any guesses?)
  2. Straws are my nemesis. They are so sneaky. I really have to be alert if I want to have a straw-free waste stream. Last night I had a dream I ordered a beer, and the server brought it to me with a straw...and I drank it! I never thought of myself as a straw user until I started this endeavor. Try collecting any straws you get for a'll be surprised.
  3. I eat a lot of corn chips. Like, a lot. I think the tortilla chip bag is a mainstay in my weekly plastic stream. I heart Green Mountain Gringo & Garden of Eatin' chips.
  4. Joe Plastic. I also love Trader Joe's. I have made one trip there since September and on that one trip (camera zoom in to my face & shopping cart), I realized that almost EVERYTHING there is packaged in plastic...even the bulk avocados.
OK, so on to #2--HDPE (high density polyethylene).
HDPE technology is about 60 years old. According to one website, two dudes named Paul & Bob from Phillips Petroleum came up with it and called it "Marlex". According to another website, a guy named Zeigler was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963 for "his invention of HDPE."

Regardless, I would like to personally thank (insert true inventor's name here) for inventing a source of happiness to Friday gym class for me. "Hula Hoop War" was my FAVORITE. Eric Hammer was the best, but my best friend, Katy and I would team up to bring his hoop down by spinning into it from both sides with the advanced technique known as "chicken scratch." The hula hoop was one of the "first editions" of HDPE.

HDPE is the plastic superhero: able to withstand temps ranging from -100 C to 120 C (-148 F to 248 F), powerful enough to hold acids, alcohols & bases, and contain a gallon of milk in a single container! HDPE in its raw form (pellets or "nurdles") looks like this:

These cute lil' fellas are formed from a highly volatile compound of crude oil called naphtha (a euphemism for crude solvent coal tar and also the root of the word napalm). If you cause naphtha to get all hot & bothered, it releases ethylene gas, and these free loving gas particles join hands to form long chains of ethylene molecules. So, these "many ethylenes" are commonly known as polyethylene. Now, take this choo-choo train of ethylenes and cram them all together like drunkards at the St. Patrick's Day parade in Southie, and you've got high-density polyethylene. Because of these durable, resistant & tight-packing qualities, HDPE is the golden child of labs & medical facilities around the world.

HDPE incarnations include, but are not limited to the following:
  • motor oil containers
  • milk jugs
  • cutting boards
  • stiff plastic bags (some retail stores have them)
  • garbage bags
  • grocery bags (aka, "plastic jellyfish", "turtle killer", "tree shower cap", "African snowflakes", "#2 for #2", "poorman's lunch box")
  • frozen food containers
  • cereal, cookie, & cracker bags inside cardboard boxes
  • milk crates
  • bread trays
  • caps & closures
  • hard hats
  • home insulation
  • storage tanks for agricultural chemicals
  • some household chemical containers
  • mooring buoys
  • covers for some electronics, furniture & appliances
  • newspaper bags
  • safety aprons
  • pipes & sheets for industrial applications
  • recycled plastic lumber (survey your local park benches)
  • toilet seat covers
  • manhole covers
  • non-carbonated drinks
  • 1/3 of all children's toys (it takes color well, so HDPE is the preferred plastic of the toy industry)
  • playground components
  • sheds & garden furniture
  • water pipes
  • gas mains
In my online travels, I discovered that I can purchase the market research report on HDPE in the world market. For a mere $4,450, I can snuggle up with 25 cups of coffee a warm blanket & a chamber pot to absorb the 400 plus pages. It's tempting. I'll think about it. What I could find out about the global market is that North America & Western Europe accounted for 44% of the market demand in 2007. Not surprisingly, China, India, Japan and South Korea are the world's leading HDPE manufacturers. Demand for HDPE has been increasing by 20% each year since 2000.

Given all of these applications, if I were stranded on a desert island and had to choose just one number of plastic, I think it would be HDPE...and then I would just rely on the tides to bring me the other plastics. ; )