Invent more plastics!

Today’s Antarctic visitors depend upon plastics

The bum-rap

Plastics are amazing substances! We, as a species, have become reliant upon them. As a society we need to recognise, with profoundly gratitude, the advances society has made thanks to this most durable of inventions. Think of medical implants, food preservation and safety glass to name a few. But who can ignore the bum-rap that plastics get for polluting our oceans? So what’s the solution? My proposal; Invent more plastics!

Grizzled smiles of those hardy pioneers

I’m lucky enough to have the Antarctic Heritage Trust as a customer. At their office in Cambridge, I saw the paper-like quality of the canvas parka’s used in the original British 1944 encampments. Supplemented with tweed flat caps, woollen mittens and gabled jumpers – were these really the best defence of the time against the harshest conditions on our planet in those days? Compare with today’s lightweight, snow-proof and warm polyester creations and you can understand what sits behind the grizzled smiles of those hardy pioneers who staked Britain’s claim to this frozen wilderness during World War 2.

Science virtually untouched

So, if man’s ingenuity is honed by war, just why was he so poorly equipped for those icy conditions in the 1940’s? After all, the advance of atomic weapons, rockets, computing and aircraft bore testament to the scientists’ genius of the day. Futuristic projects flourished, but did the science of materials -specifically fabric – just get left behind?

Constrained by the materials

Though polymer science had created ladies’ nylons before the war and Bakelite encased radios to catch-up on the news, innovations appear to have been constrained by the materials available at the turn of the 20th century; steel, glass, wood and natural fibres. The necessity to invent more synthetic fabrics, perhaps, was never seen.

Printed on silk or rayon

Silk Charts at Cambridge University Library – how to build a raft and a full European set of sea charts

Those Antarctic pioneers were not alone in their suffering. The kit chosen for escapees of Nazi-dominated Europe reflected the same constraints. Their maps, when not printed on hopelessly fragile paper, were printed on silk or rayon. Light-weight samples found at the Cambridge University Library and at the Royal Geographical Society exhibit vibrant colours, highlight the occupiers strong-holds and are often double-sided. Despite the limited range of fabrics, the war effort balanced paucity in the fabric with the skilled ability of the cartographer, inventor and printer. <perhaps the most ingenious here>

Polyester had been invented

And polyester had been invented by 1941, though sadly its potential in this pivotal era wasn’t recognised. Ultimately the rights to this British invention, like so many others, were swiftly swallowed-up by a US based company. In this case Dupont.

Today’s polyester based fabric maps over the Silk and Rayon maps

Suspiciously pristine

From both collections, however, I suspect that none of the maps saw active duty. For all the stories of behind-the-lines heroism, you’d expect the odd stain, rip, holes and general raggedness. I found only one (possible) blood stain on some linen maps of India at the RGS, and the majority of both collections appear to be reprints created after the war. Most carry a date of 1953 or reference the USSR, thus dating them post-war and before 1989. All the maps I would describe as almost suspiciously “pristine”.

A SplashMap has never been returned, ‘spoiled in action’

Would these maps survive today’s treatment? It’s difficult to say. Certainly, todays materials -the family of polyesters from non-stretch ‘Pro mapping’ fabrics to the stretchable Toob fabric – are up to the job and a much more “natural” choice given their durability. Now in action with mountain rescue, explorers of the tropics and todays visitors to the most Southerly of our retailers in Port Lockroy, Antarctica they have to be! And a SplashMap has never been returned ‘spoiled in action’!

Plastics are part of our own evolution

To keep us prosperous, the junking of plastics will represent a big step back for human kind. Face it, plastics are a part of our own evolution. We’d be denying future generations some enormous potential by holding back. Sustainable innovation and a change in attitude is the only way to invent more plastics, and to create them responsibly.

A second life for single use plastic

100 000 bottles turned into maps and knot-wrap scarves for LUSH

At SplashMaps (and surprisingly few other businesses) we’re focussing on where the plastic comes from. So far, we’ve taken 100 000 single-use plastic bottles and given them a second life. By converting them to yarn we make maps and fine print fabrics for our Client, Lush. Could other businesses follow their lead? We’re ready to help when they do.

Innovation in the use of plastics

Giving properties to fibres is much more attainable with synthetics. The uniform structure makes them easier to predict and therefore simpler to replicate multiple times. As coating and activation technologies progress ever more brilliant sensors will lead the way in medical diagnosis.

Every monomer is sacred

So, people are aware of plastic disposal issues now, in the way that Atomic waste became a focus in the 1980’s. The loss of polymers into the sea through careless waste and over-washing of fleece materials has to be the subject of deeper innovation. A change of perspective to see that – to mis-quote Monty Python- “every monomer is sacred”. With this approach would we really tolerate the plastic wraps on custom shaped plastic bottles?

It’s our misuse of this wonderful commodity

The ills of the world are not caused by plastics. It’s our mis-use of this wonderful commodity that causes us problems.

The Palette of possibilities

Man’s ingenuity will never cease. Plastics expanded the creative palette of possibilities for the 20th century inventor. Today’s sentimental aversion to plastics is understandable. It ruins our planet. But restricting us to ideas without plastics will turn back the clock way too far.

Embrace the very thing we lament

Instead we need to embrace the very thing we lament about plastics. After all, shouldn’t their resistance to decay and degradation in most environments make them as valuable as the noble metals of gold and platinum?

Be properly grateful

The answer isn’t a curtailment of plastic invention, instead it’s a change in habits allied with a drive to invent more plastics more sustainably. An improvement of our attitude in society to be properly grateful for the opportunities only plastics make possible.

David Overton is a Chemical Engineer with a Marketing degree. He’s qualified in innovation typically applying his skills to maps, geospatial technologies and Earth Observation. He’s the MD of SplashMaps – the fabric maps business – and consultancy dbyhundred Ltd.

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