The Greening of Plastics

By Mackin, Jeanne | Human Ecology Forum, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

The Greening of Plastics


Mackin, Jeanne, Human Ecology Forum


Landfills are clogged with the detritus of unusable or just unwanted plastic consumer goods. Why not, asked fiber scientist Anil Netravali, make a plastic that decomposes? A plastic that, in fact, could end up in the compost heap instead of the landfill?

By early next century, if Anil Netravali has his way, we may be putting broken or outmoded pieces of the family car - the cracked tape deck holder, the broken window handle - out on the compost pile, along with last night's onion peels and apple cores. Netravali, an associate professor in the Department of Textiles and Apparel, is investigating the properties of several natural fibers that, when imbedded in a moldable, degradable matrix, may become the reinforced plastic of the future - one that's biodegradable, or a "green" composite.

Remember the scene from The Graduate when a winking uncle advised the graduate that plastics were the future? To a large extent that fictional uncle was right. Plastics did become a large part of the history of the second half of the twentieth century, both for consumers and scientists. Without plastics and other new lightweight composites, the space program would have been all but impossible. In fact, much of the research leading to the new materials and fibers of the twentieth century focused on flight and space exploration and eventually filtered down to more mundane consumer items.

The problem is that those now ubiquitous plastics tend to hang around a very, very long time, even after the product is defunct. Landfills are clogged with the detritus of unusable or just unwanted plastic consumer goods. Recycling is one way of reducing this stream of solid waste, though recycling plastic brings its own problems and environmental issues.

Why not, asked Netravali, make composites that decompose? Plastics that, in fact, could end up in the compost heap instead of the landfill? Enter green composites, as Netravali terms this new and needed material for the manufacture of consumer goods. While small groups of scientists in Europe are also investigating more environmentally friendly plastics, Netravali probably is the only researcher whose ultimate goal is a totally biodegradable plastic.

"Green composites could eventually become inexpensive composites for mass-produced items," Netravali says. "And they would be environmentally friendly because they would biodegrade."

Netravali came to Cornell, "for one year," he explains, as a postdoctoral associate in 1984, and he has been here since then as a faculty member in the college's Fiber Science Program. The green composite program began officially in 1996.

The substance that nonscientists call plastic is part of a larger group of manufactured substances technically known as polymers. Polyurethane foam, nylon, polyester, and spandex are examples. Reinforced polymer composites are versatile and provide a high strength-to-weight ratio, making them invaluable in, for instance, the space program and aviation. Voyager, the first aircraft to circle the globe without refueling, was made of a high-strength, lightweight composite. Green composites, made of biologically and chemically active rather than inert materials would, of course, be weaker and less durable. But there are many other applications for such products that are noncritical, where a biodegradable composite could be as feasible as a tougher, nonbiodegradable alternative.

"You wouldn't use a green composite in an application where, if it broke, it would be a significant loss," Netravali says. "You don't want an airplane wing to break, for instance. 'But there are many other instances of use when if a piece of plastic breaks, it is just inconvenient, not critical. Those uses would be suitable for green composites."

Current research in the fiber science laboratory at Cornell focuses on finding the most advantageous combination of fiber and resin - one that would provide a finished product that is as strong as possible, durable, affordable, and biodegradable - and the most efficient method of combining the two substances. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Greening of Plastics
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.