Unprompted: Ideas Come and Go, But Plastic Is Forever 

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In the film “The Graduate” an older guy at a party calls Dustin Hoffman aside and whispers some advice, “Just one word … plastics.”

Hoffman played a young college graduate preparing for life and considering various opportunities. One of which was Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft. It was either her or her daughter. Anyway, Hoffman’s casual mentor voiced the opinion — in 1967, mind you — that plastics were the future.

Sure enough, he was partially right. Plastic has taken over just about everything. Half of the components in a new car are made of plastic, yet account for only 10 percent of the weight of the vehicle. Every day while you and I do whatever we do, there are thousands of scientists in laboratories trying to make better plastics. They are plastic addicts. This makes me happy because what they’ve come up with so far is pretty good and they keep coming up with stuff. We’ve come a long way from the days when the word plastic referred to cheap children’s toys made in Japan.

A few years ago a friend of mine bought a Saturn and then got rid of it because she decided she didn’t want to drive a plastic car. So she traded for a Honda, apparently not realizing that a Honda, like all other cars nowadays, is mostly plastic. Corvettes have always been plastic, assuming fiberglass is a form of plastic. Good plastic is really cool.

In the golden age of comic books one of the most popular characters was Plastic Man, a superhero who could stretch his body into any configuration. An added benefit for Plastic Man was that when he was shot by one of the bad guys, his body stretched with the bullet, then returned to its normal shape. Superman was faster than a speeding bullet, but Plastic Man didn’t have to worry about that. Millions of kids read Plastic Man comics because the appeal of plastic was already with us — we just hadn’t fully appreciated it yet except in fiction. By the way, Plastic Man was introduced in 1941, by coincidence the same year I was introduced.

Unlike almost everything else, plastic lasts forever. A thousand years from now historians will dig through landfills and find almost everything gone … except what was made of plastic. Even those horrible leisure suits that most of us fashion-minded guys wore in the ’70s are made of a form of plastic treads. It’s a bit worrisome that the leisure suits we now laugh at will be around for eternity to remind everyone of how clever we were back then.

So let’s look to the future and imagine what’s coming down the pike, besides Corvettes. Well, plastic is replacing wood in house construction. This must be an enduring frustration to termites, who depend on wood for a living. We have plastic guns, assuming we need guns at all. And we have Kevlar to stop the bullets from those guns. It’s like plastic at war with plastic.

Our soft drinks come in plastic bottles. We also buy water in plastic bottles, forgetting for the moment that the water in those bottles isn’t subject to the same rigorous purity controls as the public water system. But that’s another story. Ultimately everything will be made of plastic to the point that nothing will ever go away.

Several years ago I invented and obtained patents on a little insert used to join wooden picture frames. The Thumbnail was made of neoprene, a form of rubber that’s akin to plastic. Hundreds of millions of Thumbnails have been sold and are found all over the world. I think sometimes as I consider my future, which is admittedly behind me, that the Thumbnail will be my only enduring legacy. Millions of little Thumbnails will live for eternity either in framed pictures or in landfills because someone decided the picture was too bad to keep. But the invention itself, the Thumbnail, will live forever.

When I get to wherever I’m going after this life and the big guy asks, “And what did you do for humanity, Mr. Cox?” I will say not much … but I did invent the Thumbnail. Other things may come and go, but my Thumbnails are going nowhere … because they’re made of plastic.

My legacy is in the county dump. S

Gene Cox is an author and inventor who recently retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at letters@styleweekly.com, or on Twitter at @genecoxrva.




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