When Plastics Aren’t Forever: Part I

Images like this pelican eating a piece of plastic trash emphasize the destructive permanence of plastic in the environment.

All our lives we’ve heard that plastics are permanent. Water bottles and salad clamshells pile up in landfills and collect in giant vortexes in the ocean. Plastic bags and six-pack holders threaten turtles and other aquatic creatures who get entangled in them. Whenever I see the remains of some poor dead seagull’s stomach, and notice all the bottlecaps and plastic ties inside, I can’t help but think, vita brevis, plastic longa (life is short, plastics are forever).

But that lament misses an important point. Plastics don’t dissolve and disappear like paper does, but plastics do change over time, often in nasty, corrosive ways. And this throws up an enormous challenge for those people who strive to preserve plastics, especially those people charged with preserving them for decades and even centuries—museum curators.

Many museums nowadays emphasize the everyday: the objects that tell how ordinary people lived their lives. Museums recognize more and more, then, that they need to preserve plastic items, or else future generations will face gaps in trying to understand the 20th and 21st centuries. By some estimates fully half the objects museums acquire nowadays are “modern materials,” mostly plastics, and plastics have become so ubiquitous that pretty much every single museum out there has plastic objects of some sort. Many artists, highbrow and kitschy alike, have embraced plastics as well, for the morphological freedom they offer.

Celluloid objects, like this fan, represent a host of problems for curators and conservators. As the objects decay, they can leach acids that damage surrounding materials. They are also a fire hazard.

Chemical Heritage Foundation Collection. Photo by Gregory Tobias.

The problem is that, ultimately, plastics are not something forged by nature but something thrown together by humans. As such, plastics are designed to last a certain lifetime, and they remain quite stable over that lifetime. When they start to deteriorate, though, they fall off a cliff. That’s fine for consumers, who can simply buy another doll or yo-yo; but museums are in it for the long haul, and curators often can do little more than sigh as the plastics in their collections deteriorate. Compounding the problem is the fact that plastics are actually a diverse class of compounds, each with its own distinct chemical makeup—and distinct problems of conservation.

Over the next two posts I’m going to provide a sketch of the challenges museum face. First, we’ll look at examples of problematic materials and explain how plastics break down. A third piece will examine some well-known objects and pieces of plastic art that are deteriorating and what curators are doing in response.

Related: When Plastics Aren't Forever II; When Plastics Aren't Forever III


Sam Kean is the bestselling author of The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Mental Floss, Slate, Psychology Today, and the New Scientist as well as on NPR’s “Radio Lab” and “All Things Considered,” among other programs.  

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