Plastics exhibit gets real at the Fullerton Museum

Plastic people are phony or insincere. A plastic smile is forced and artificial. And people who pull out their plastic at every turn are often looked at as spendthrifts.

But when Ben Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, was having trouble deciding what to do after graduation in the 1967 movie "The Graduate," the one word of advice from a family friend might have seemed prescient: "Plastics."

Despite all the pejorative connections, the many forms of this synthetic substance have made our lives comfortable and convenient. No-iron polyester fabric for clothing. Lightweight and stylish eyeglasses. Saran wrap. Tupperware. Disposable yogurt containers and milk jugs.

What would our lives be without plastic?

"Plastics Unwrapped," the new traveling exhibit now at the Fullerton Museum, explores that question and others. How is plastic made? How has it improved our lives? Why is it so damaging to our environment?

"We are showing our relationship with plastics in the past and present, and ask what our relationship will be in the future," said Kelly Chidester, the museum's curator.

While the core of the exhibit was created by students at the University of Washington's Burke Museum in 2013, Chidester has expanded it with items from local agencies.

"Most of us are well aware of the drawbacks," she said. "We want to show the positives of plastic, not just the negatives."

Chemists have been inventing various forms of plastic for more than 150 years. The first plastic made from natural materials was featured at the 1862 International Exhibition in London. The first completely synthetic plastic was Bakelite, introduced in 1907. It was durable enough for use in making radios, clocks and jewelry. Cellophane, the precursor to plastic wrap, came along in 1912.

"Cellophane opened a world of possibilities," Chidester said. "Can you imagine what it was like the first time people could actually see the food they were buying at the store? It was revolutionary."

One wall of the museum features a timeline of some familiar plastic products: vinyl in 1927, Scotch tape in 1930, nylon stockings in 1940. Formica — first used as counter surfaces in nightclubs and on cruise ships — came on the market for home use in 1947, later followed by Tupperware food storage containers, Barbie fashion dolls and plastic Lego bricks.

"The '60s were the turning point," Chidester said. "Up to then, manufacturers made items out of plastic to look like and substitute for natural substances, such as stone, wood and ivory. In the 1960s, we embraced plastic for what it was. It was a huge design shift."

Two 1960s-era plastic chairs are in the display to illustrate that. They are sculpted, streamlined and stylish and represent a shift away from heavy, opulent furniture of the past.

More advancements in plastic production resulted in bullet-absorbing vests for police officers and safer, lightweight helmets for firefighters and football players. A gleaming, flexible plastic prosthesis stands next to an old, elaborate wooden version.

"Think of how uncomfortable it would have been wearing that heavy wooden leg," Chidester said. "With the new prosthesis, people can run and ski, as if it were a normal leg. It is far lighter and more comfortable."

More convenience arrived as plastic became the preferred material for milk jugs, peanut butter jars, drinking straws, yogurt, plumbing pipes, toothbrush bristles, fishing line, CDs, foam and cellphone bodies. Hospitals turned to plastic tubes, trays and gloves for surgeries because the items could be thrown away.

Disposable plastic grocery bags and single plastic water bottles emerged. It wasn't long before the treasured durability of plastics became a problem.

Our plastic disposables have contributed to a huge waste site in the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of the continental United States, according to ecology.com. Plastic water bottles in landfills won't degrade for centuries.

The museum offers stunning examples. Tacked on to a couple of walls are 3,000 disposable plastic bags, representing the number of plastic bags put in use each quarter of a second in the U.S.

Bales of smashed plastic water bottles stand 6 feet high and 5 feet wide. They represent the 650 pounds of bottles discarded every hour in the U.S.

"It takes two to four weeks for a paper towel in a landfill to break down," Chidester said. "An apple core will degrade in two months. A tin can takes 50 years. A typical plastic bottle will take 450 years to degrade.

"This should get you to think about how you interact with plastic."

Charts show the six most common types of plastics and their uses, along with the recycle symbol rating for each. Included in the exhibit are suggestions for cutting down on plastic waste, such as avoiding the use of plastic packaging, opting for glass bottles for beverages, choosing safer, more natural toys and baby products, and relying more on compostable materials.

For example, instead of taking plastic utensils to picnics, use bamboo flatware.

The exhibit also advises that people reuse the plastic items they have. An imaginative example is a series of colorful 3-D paintings made from plastic pill containers and other items.

"And say no to plastic bags and bottled water," Chidester said.

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IF YOU GO

What: "Plastics Unwrapped"

Where: Fullerton Museum, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton

When: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; noon to 8 p.m. Thursdays, through May 1.

Cost: $4; $3 for seniors and students; $1 for children ages 6 to 12

Information: (714) 738-6545; http://www.ci.fullerton.ca.us/museum/

Special event coming to the museum: "Plastics in the World's Oceans," a lecture by Sean Chamberlin and Liesel Thomas of Algalita Marine Research and Education of Long Beach; 2 p.m. March 6. Free with paid museum admission.

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