“The Future is Plastics” Movie “The Graduate” foretold a great industry and new products
“The Future is ‘Plastics’” was uttered nearly 50 years ago now in the watershed movie. The Graduate. While its various story complexities have been explored over the years, people still talk about the duality of the meaning, then . . . and now. See recent article, Was ‘Plastics’ the Right Advice in 1967? from Bloomberg News.
Mr. McGuire was suggesting to Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, that the future of making money and a career was in the plastic industry. Indeed, the plastics industry did boom in the following decades. Microdyne Plastics was established only a few years later and grew rapidly with many other plastics companies.
But the dichotomy of the movie represented much more. For the older generation it was how to succeed in business and get money and status. It was the last vestige of the traditions of the company man, developed in the decade before. But for the graduates of the day it meant something entirely different.
“Plastic” also meant fake, or artificial, unnatural. The statement “The future is plastics” was also code for all things that needed to be changed. The older man thought he was providing good advice, and the young audience took the statement as what not to do. Naturally the relationship between the mother, daughter, and Dustin Hoffman’s character over (a shocking in those days) affair with the mother, was woven into and supported the duplicity of the movie.
But we want to explore plastic. What was it then, and what has it become now?
Rubberized materials and plastics were used years before the movie the Graduate. In those days many considered it a cheap and undesirable material. Much of it cracked easily or was without form. However, in a few years, the detail of plastic toys was better than metal or wood. But it also became much cheaper. So when the details on, say, a model railroad were highly accurate (small) reproductions of real engines and rail cars with realistic colors, it was the easy choice for the model railroad aficionado. Plastic also became nearly indestructible for all kinds of products.
As the gas shortages unfolded in the 1970s, automakers began replacing heavy, expensive parts with plastic parts that looked better than the “painted on” wood grain. It lasted longer and was much lighter which added more miles per gallon. As designers began to take advantage of shape form, and function of plastic, it became a respected material of the 21st century. When was the last time you bought a metal laptop computer or smart phone? Never, right? While a few metal parts may be inside, today thousands of items are fully plastic on the outside at least. Look on your desk. Laptop and tablet, separate large monitor, printer, external speakers, pens, mouse. All are plastic, and in each case the perceived quality is very high, and none of these are better in another material. Well, you may have a metal pen, but I find the nice expensive ones never work well!
Another theme and generational contradiction in the movie, The Graduate, was the coming awareness of the environment. The older generation had been responsible for incredible river and land pollution. The world that was created was based on unbridled expense control to be competitive, with competition creating profit that would maintain stock prices. But the new graduates following 1967 began to buy things for different reasons.
While they moved to genuine things, their parents continued to embrace the buying patterns of the early 60s. These new graduates bought cheap but real antiques to furnish their new homes, they began drinking tea collected in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado, now Celestial Seasonings. They started the massive movement back into natural fabrics instead of synthetics. They purchased pre-1940’s homes and restored them to the original, and they began to question everything from chemical production to the use of paper and plastic bags. They started the revolution in thinking about food production, which continues with younger consumers now.
So “plastic” meant something negative to them at first, but they bought the first small cars and high mileage cars from Japanese makers (made with new lighter synthetic materials). They also bought lots of stereo equipment with plastic faceplates and knobs, with the highest perceived quality brands. They bought lots of plastic toys for their children, way more than they had as children themselves.
Over time these plastic products earned the reputation they deserved: Fexible, strong, elegant, practical, and high quality. “Plastics” made the transformation through experience from something unnatural to something that was original in its own right; neither good or bad, just different. There are many products made of plastics we would not want to live without.
Of course, some recycling issues with plastic do remain, and a few types of plastic are not yet easily recyclable. But for the most part re-use, and recycling are continuing to get better, while many plastic items can simply not be replaced with other materials.
In fact, our world would not be the same without modern plastic technology. Plastics advancements in medicine, kitchen appliances, automotive markets, packaging, containers, aeronautics, office products and many other industries are immeasurable. The material’s flexibility, economy, and usefulness in most cases outweigh its downside. But most other materials also have some downside. Wood, while renewable, requires many steps to make small items while it is easily made in a single mold in plastic. Some feel we are cutting the forests too fast, (although we have more trees today than 400 years ago). Metal is difficult to mine, leaving other residual waste that often is toxic. It requires a huge amount of energy to process and can be costly to fashion into products. Ceramics and glass also require energy and are easily broken and rarely repairable. Each material has its downside. Plastic, a petroleum based product is criticized because petroleum is considered a pollutant by some. However plastic captures and stores carbon, while our cars release carbon into the air. Ironically, lighter plastics in cars, stores carbon, while reducing carbon emissions. Most plastic is recyclable, as metal and wood (and paper) are. While we need to recycle more of all these materials, plastic is still a material that is useful in the economy.
The movie The Graduate touched on several levels of what the future of plastics would mean. While one generation saw it as a negative symbol compared with the previous, while the term “plastic” can still be negative, today’s buyers rarely think about the materials that produce modern products they want, from cool, to incredibly practical. While over the decades since the movie, the industry has become mature; it still remains vital to the modern economy. Recycling can be improved, but plastics remain an outstanding benefit to humankind.
Read more about the movie.