“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you listening?”

“Yes I am.”

“Plastics.”     – The Graduate, 1967


And so we begin this little foray into something currently choking the planet and birds and fish and turtles and possibly sex. So how did we get to plastic being the fabric of everything?

Initially, it began during The Depression, when GM and others began to plan for their own cars to be obsolete. This guaranteed them both repeat repair business and a certain amount of repeat sales. During The Depression, anything that created work was valued, as long as it also created profits for those driving the companies.

Fast forward to today, and planned obsolescence or “designed service life” are concepts used by a new group of “design engineers” and “life cycle engineers”, both terms that did not exist back when planned obsolescence began to take shape. Before these terms and way of thinking were devised, engineers designed for maximum service life, ease of service and maintenance – basically for longevity. Equipment used during WWII was leftover from or designed during the 1930’s – before “designed service life” was even a term. It can be seen in machine tools, like industrial lathes, which are still sought out today 90-odd years after their manufacture because they are still in use, still function and are easy to repair and operate. Longevity can’t be seen in new products today, because design engineers no longer build for maximum service life – no, not even in nuclear reactors.

While we can go into the entire history of planned obsolescence, let us avoid that. Take it as an easily researched fact that very little is designed to last your lifetime, much less that of your children, because it is a business model which limits growth. It is far more lucrative to build a thing that works for a while, and then is obsoleted or else just falls apart – forcing you to buy a new gadget. Using cheaper materials also allows for fatter profits, and designing for a 2 or 5 or 7 year “service life” frees engineers to use all sorts of cheap crap that mostly lasts just long enough to get the item out of the warranty or pro-rating time windows. This is where we are today, and as prime examples we can use automobiles, lawn mowers, refrigerators, etc. Pick anything up from WallyMart and you will be holding something designed to last “X” years or months or even weeks.

Plastics were actually a by-product of oil and gas, developed by companies like DuPont and Dow and others to use cheap heavy oil as a feedstock. Nylon was one of the earliest plastics, and it went into women’s stockings in a big way. And we know how long those actually last, don’t we?

Planned obsolescence could not have asked for a better substance than plastic!

With cheap oil, there was also cheap plastic. As with any industry, things got more ‘efficient’, and today plastic is cheaper than paper, even with oil cost being much higher than in the first half of the last century. It is used everywhere, and it is especially good at coming apart, degrading, dissolving, drying, cracking and many other things – all on a predictable timeline. It is also light, can be shaped easily and intricately and can be made strong relative to its weight – all things being thrown into a basket, it is exactly the word that young Benjamin should have listened to in The Graduate, if he wanted to be very rich. It was in that decade (1960-70) when plastic really exploded into daily use.

So why am I off following this trail? Several reasons – 1) oil is not going to be around forever at current pricing; 2) there are several ocean gyres filled with literally hundreds of square miles of plastic detritus; 3) plastic dissolves into constituent smaller molecules and has now formed a ‘soup’ within these oceanic gyres; 4) it has been linked to fertility issues (sperm motility in humans and sexing in amphibians); 5) it is everywhere, to the point of forming whirling dervishes in desert landscapes; 6) the true impacts of a plastic laden ecology are only now coming into view, and science is running from studying it; 7) I detest the material due to everything listed above, even if I do I work in the oilfield…

When you buy a car, it is designed for a maximum lifespan of about 10 years, but many are designed with even less. This gives the “design engineer” a window of materials within which he can operate. As an example, cars from the 1950’s used metal dashboards. Now, many reasons are given for why plastic and foam dashboards are currently used, including safety. But I will posit here that the safety was secondary and a great sales driver for using a lower cost material. Today, if one removes all plastic from a vehicle, there isn’t very much left that is drive-able.

What is the “designed service life” of a spatula? Of a juicer? A spoon? And we haven’t even begun to talk about packaging, the largest contributor to waste streams (and fat profits) for many items. I imagine you have purchased a “memory stick” for your computer – and the packaging is roughly 10-30 times the size of the item you actually bought? And it is normally plastic.

I think you get the picture, so let’s move on.

In general, plastics are easily dissolved – either by other hydrocarbons (think acetones, or ketones or turpentine) or water. Those that resist water and hydrocarbons are susceptible to UV radiation, and after they break down under extended UV light exposure, they are more easily dissolved by water, the universal solvent.

Have you ever owned a car you wanted to keep, only to have the dashboard crack? The air conditioning vents crack? The control knobs crack? That is UV light doing what it does, breaking things down by shattering chemical bonds. Did I mention that with the magnetosphere of planet Earth declining, more UV strikes the ground every year?

As a long term material, plastic… well, it just sucks. Even Tupperware sucks, as it becomes brittle within a few months if washed and used regularly. Even fiberglass, uncoated or coated, breaks down in UV light over time. If Ben Franklin had made his innovative sunroof from plastic, it would not still be there today. Thankfully, he made it from glass.

If you are trying to store water in plastic, other than very short term, you will be very let down. You will taste plastic and nobody knows what these leached polymers and plasticizers do to you because they (companies and governments) industriously avoid studying this. Ever wonder why PVC plumbed houses always have funny tasting water? Or why you are supposed to let hot water run through your piping for 4-6 hours after installing it? It seems to be fine after that – but nobody really knows because there are no long term studies performed.

You cannot store gas or oil in plastics unless it is underground – because UV light embrittles the plastic and degrades it to a state where it flakes or dissolves in water. I have replaced every gas can on my farm in a mere 3 years due to embrittlement. All are now metal, which can rust, but you can fix that with paint and keeping the cans dry most of the time. And no – painting plastic items with Krylon plastic paint does not help them last any longer – UV wins every time.

Honestly, plastic items are a waste of your money and are the largest component of modern waste streams today. How many tampon applicators do you see washed up on the beach? Funny, this wasn’t a problem in the 1960’s because the applicators were cardboard – which biodegrades harmlessly and predictably. Ladies, please don’t be upset – think about what your great-grandmother had to do and be grateful.

So what can you do to get rid of this very cheap yet overall harmful, sucky material?

You can opt for longer lasting things.

You can make a conscious choice for alternative materials.

Yes, they cost more initially. Example: metal gas can runs $27-80 while plastic is $12-50. One lasts “X” years and the metal variety lasts your lifetime or longer if you keep it out of the mud and paint it occasionally. My metal gas cans may get dented or bent, but it will not suddenly crack and I don’t have to buy another one in a few years.

But other materials are just no longer used. I make wooden crates to hold a dozen Mason jars. Each crate costs me about $3, and will last the rest of my life or my kids lifetimes. They no longer make crates to carry Mason jars or much else – it is cardboard or plastic shrink wrap – use once and toss away. So there is nothing out there to hold your canned goods except crappy plastic wrap or paper – plastic wrap is not reusable and paper dissolves when wet and attracts insects. Nobody makes wooden crates anymore – unless they are decorative. I own wooden dynamite boxes from the 1940’s – still serviceable and still carrying or storing things. Today, dynamite is shipped in cardboard or special plastic, and the containers are not useful for anything else – specialized design, just for dynamite sticks…

Handles for things like shovels are now plastic. I owned one until last year – lasted me 9 years, so not too bad. But when it broke due to UV embrittlement, there was no way to attach another handle to the business end – it was designed strictly for the plastic handle. Replacement handle cost 75% of buying a new shovel – planned??

I have a 16# sledgehammer I did not trust because it was going on 10 years old, and when those handles break during a swing, somebody is hurt or something is broken. You cannot see plastic degrade, except for discoloration, but that happens with a few weeks of UV exposure. So how do you know your handle is rotten? At least with wood, you know when the thing is getting long in the tooth and you can replace it. Yes, my sledgehammer now has an oak handle, but only after spontaneous rupture of the plastic shaft and a nice dent in my tractor.

There are scads of “rain barrels” out there made from food grade plastic. Unfortunately, these are NOT designed to be exposed to UV – it is outside of their design parameters. I tried to re-use them as planters by cutting them in half, but only got another year out of them due to embrittlement. Even the black plastic plant containers made from recycled plastics are not designed for re-use. They will give you 2-5 years with some luck, and then be too brittle to use. Vinyl siding for your house? Gutters? The height of planned obsolescence.

My buddy George was lamenting to me just the other day that the starter on his tractor has a plastic gear that contacts and spins the flywheel. Yep – it goes out very regularly. He asked them why they no longer made a metal one, and was told that the plastic design “put less stress and wear on the flywheel”. Seriously? Really? A part that is truly designed to fail regularly, to protect another metal part that rarely, if ever, fails? I have replaced ONE (1) flywheel in my almost 60 years, and it was damaged by an idiot that just kept cranking a worn out starter.

The long and short of things is that in a world where oil is going to become more scarce (my children and grandchildren’s world), plastic will not be as cheap. I am not saying this concerning next year – think multi-generational event. When money is scarce, planned obsolescence does not work simply because the disposable cash to power obsolescence is no longer there. In that environment, wood becomes valuable, as it is easily workable even in a low energy environment and it lasts. Glass is similarly valuable, as it can be maintained, cleaned and reused. Metal is more valuable and lasts longer than plastic in everyday items.

If commerce locks up and suddenly China is not producing cheap crap and flooding our market, what are the alternatives? Seriously, what if Tupperware and similar plastic items doubled or tripled in price? If something happens and the refineries along the Gulf Coast are destroyed, what happens to the price of oil related items? Fuel isn’t the only thing that oil delivers to us. Who can afford to make their own plastic stuff?? Self-sufficiency in plastic manufacturing will set you back the cost of your house. Or else you can buy a 3D printer and make junk that only lasts a few minutes.

In a world where things cost what they are actually worth, it is nuts to knowingly buy anything you will be forced to purchase again in a few years. Today, things do not cost what they are worth – they are cheap, built cheaply with minimal cost materials and minimal standards. They are built in what I term ‘justenuf’ style – justenuf to work for a job or two. They are cheap in America due to the strong dollar as well, further fueling this morass of planned obsolescence, cheap plastic junk and ‘justenuf construction’.

I always wondered why in the USA we left returnable glass bottles behind, when they are still used in ‘less advanced’ countries. It takes little effort and energy to wash and reuse glass bottles – much less energy than recycling plastic or aluminum. Why do we reuse Mason jars so easily and readily, but soft drinks are not even available unless packaged in plastic and aluminum?

Funny, beer and wine and whiskey seem to still be coming in glass these days. I wonder – is plastic not-so-good in the presence of alcohol? Hmmmm….then what about the phosphoric acid and citric acid used in most fizzy drinks? Hmmm…. And salsa – it doesn’t come in plastic either – ever wonder why?

Cheap is not better in most cases, even in little purchases like a soda. Plastic is NOT your friend environmentally, it has limited useful life (as planned) and it does not recycle very well. If you are looking at ANYTHING long term, plastic should be crossed off your list – it is simply not designed for more than 10-25 years, and more often than not, for less than 36 months.

Yes, you can argue and I am sure material and plastics engineers will be all over me on this. But my opinion will not be changed simply due to the facts on the ground at my own farm, the drilling rigs I have worked on across the world and my suburban house. Those plastics that do tend to last longer are more expensive per pound than steel – so there is no added profit margin for manufacturers in switching materials.

There are valid reasons why I prefer recycling glass windows to make greenhouses instead of polycarbonates or fiberglass, even if it makes for more work. There are reasons I buy galvanized metal buckets and not plastic ones, one being that I don’t have to think about what I dump into a metal bucket, with the exceptions being strong acids and bases.

At the end of the day, you are either building for your and your progeny’s  future or you are not. I like that I inherited a spatula my uncle built during WWII, and I think leaving spiritual and some material inheritance for my kids would be a nice gift. I think leaving money as inheritance is a poor gift, but that is for another time…

I am trying to build and buy things that last or can be repaired easily, and plastics are not in my “design envelope” due to their limited lifespans, their obvious solvency in various liquids and their weakness in resisting UV and even IR radiation. Planned obsolescence does not work well in a resource and capital strained world. Planned obsolescence simply generates more sales and profits – the beneficiary being some faceless corporate suit making his/her bonus most of the time.

Plastic, by its very nature and characteristics, has a narrow “designed service life”. It has a place where it is useful, but I doubt archaeologists will be finding large plastic items in 1000 years. No, things will revert to wood and metal, one for short-term items and the other for longer-term items. Plastic basically delivers just what was hinted to young Benjamin in The Graduate – it generates lots of cash.

But at what cost?

Progress? Really??

So my advice is pretty simple:

Buy items that you can repair

This may mean buying older things and restoring them to service. A 1960’s or earlier vehicle will be restorable for a cost of around $10-20,000. What does a new vehicle cost? Can you work on it yourself? Nope, so how much does a trip to the shop cost you? Minimum $500 for the easy things – easily 2x or 3x that for more difficult parts replacement.

What about a lawn mower? Easily $500 or more for something reliable like a Honda or a Husqvarna. A rebuilt one with fresh motor can be had for $300 or less – I see them at the same shops I used to take my mower to for service.

Buy items that have simple, reliable designs

Anything with an ECU (electronic control unit or computer control) is not normally fixable by a guy with some tools. This is intentional, to force you back to the dealer system for service. Anything with computer or digital controls is likely designed in similar vein. Is it really necessary to have touchpad controls and a logic board on a washing machine? To have a refrigerator that has a grocery list linked to your I-phone?

Every time digital is added to a device, the cost goes up for the initial purchase, but the maintenance and repair costs skyrocket. There is little difference in the mechanics internally – freon and compressor for a fridge or freezer and timing circuits and solenoids for the washer. The ‘digital’ end is another level of complexity tacked on to make a common item appear more “tech-ish” and new again.

Buy new items with fewer tech features – reduce points of failure.

I own a fridge from 1984 when I first had kids – it is still running and I replaced the gaskets about 10 years back. I bought a new top-of-the-line GE last year. It went out (logic board) under warranty, twice. In both cases, GE refunded me the cost of my ruined food and after a week of no fridge, replaced the unit at no cost. No cost – to whom? Now it is year 2 on their latest and greatest, and 3 days after the warranty lapsed gues what? Yep – logic board failure. My cost? $550 to repair a unit I bought for $1100. But the old one is cranking along fine in my garage.

Opinion here, but appliances have no purpose being linked to the internet that I can fathom, so why do they need to be digitally controlled?

Buy things that are designed for commercial use

Today, this is the only option to get an item that is built to last and to be serviced. Homeowner or residential-type items are just too cheaply designed and built. Even going this route, you need to look at the item carefully – if it is mostly plastic, then it is likely worthless for long term.

Buy what you need that fits the above criteria, not the latest whiz-bang gizmo

My prime beef here is the whole Keurig gimmick for coffee, and those bread-makers and Superjuicers. There are lots of other ‘devices’ out there that have similar characteristics. I have a hand juicer for citrus and a fruit press for anything else to make juice – these 2 items have outlasted 4 juicers in 10 years, and are far easier and quicker to clean after each use.

I had a Keurig and it was fancy and easy. Until it got a little clogged in the nozzles. After 3 days of futzing with cleaning it, I tried to disassemble to get at the nozzles. No-go, as the plastic fasteners are NOT designed for servicing the unit. I wound up fixing it and using epoxy to get it back together. Then I did the math on the cost of the little cups of coffee, even the fill-it-yourself cup, and Mr. Keurig now resides elsewhere. I don’t need a $1 cup of coffee in my own kitchen. I’ll stick with the old Pyrex coffeemaker for $12 at Wallymart and my $20 cent cup of coffee.

Bread makers? I have to make 2 loaves to get enough bread for a decent Saturday afternoon sandwich with the wife. And cleaning them takes longer than a bread pan – so what is the point of this device exactly?

Avoid plastic items if at all possible – I think the reasons are clear from my diatribe, right?

I am NOT a pessimist, Luddite or a curmudgeon, even if this entry comes across that way. I love smiling, laughing and enjoying my life. Even my own kids enjoy my company, which seems to be unusual in many families.

The devils of hypercomplexity, planned obsolescence and plastics have just been snapping at my heels these last few years – and they never snapped at my father or grandfather nearly as often. When the electric coffee pot went out, the heating element got replaced and back into service it went. Look at what I went through with the latest in coffee technology.

What I am, after thinking about all these things, is a man very weary of being fed crap and told it is gold.





Hypercomplexity, Obsolescence, Plastics….oh my — 12 Comments

  1. Great post, I hope it is widely read. I think there is a great marketing angle for any company willing to use the longevity of their commercial wares (as long as they are truly more long-lived). Not every American has been conditioned to “Always a low price.”

    • KKlein –

      It seems to be getting worse with China and all other developing nations almost sending stuff to America for free. But the other issue is people being too greedy. Example: my daughter bought a used loom for making cloth, but needed a wheel to wind the thread on. She showed me a picture of the thing, and we built one in my garage for $25 in about 2 hours, including sanding the thing smooth. Same item, made in USA, costs $750 plus shipping. Plastic Chinese version costs $450 plus shipping. Now, I WANT to buy American, but the differential is huge here – 30X as much as building it?

      I am wondering if, with hypercomplexity reaching into every nook and cranny, if there are just too many intermediaries that must be paid off for commerce to function? You know, the customs guys, shipping guys, packing guys, website guys, search engine guys, etc.

      • And, don’t forget all the “vig” (interest) all the intermediaries have to pay to the finance sectors too since they are often leveraged to the hilt. All those things do make their way into the final price. Obviously.

  2. One bright spot you didn’t mention is plastic clothes. They last forever and are practically indestructible. I write this as I wear a 30+ year old fleece jacket – polypropylene? And polyester clothing doesn’t even rot if you bury it. That could come in handy after the apocalypse.

    • I like the concept, but having seen my grandfather on fire in a synthetic fiber jacket, I am just not going to even go there. He had those scars until he died, and the burns were ugly. Synthetic anything I tend to look askance at – I just prefer natural over synthetic. But to each his/her own – mine is just a preference. Anything can catch on fire if there is enough heat…

  3. I have some appreciation for your concept, but in real life I find things are not as bad as you say they are. For instance, I have several plastic gas cans. All continue to be useful and show no signs of cracking, despite all being five years old or older. Not everything made of plastic will shatter without warning because of UV.

    I won’t disagree on appliances. It was explained to me by a gal who runs a small-town appliance store. The big box stores like The Home Depot, Walmart and Sears tell the manufacturers that they must hit a particular price point. In order to do that, some parts are made of very flimsy material. In the case of a vacuum cleaner, a part was made of cardboard. When I rolled over the cord of the vacuum, it damaged that piece of cardboard. It can’t be replaced. The unit was junk.

    In larger appliances things that were made of good metal are now made of what amounts to foil. That’s why many refrigerators now have a 1-year warranty. Stoves have flimsy parts. Brand doesn’t matter at all. In many cases one brand’s product is manufactured in another brand’s plant. One can buy good fridges–I’ve learned to study the warranties carefully. They’re still not as well-made as that 1984 model, but they’re better than the bargain models in the ads.

    And I would love to have some of your Mason jar boxes. I’d imagine you would have to charge a lot more than $3.

  4. I have four treadle sewing machines. The oldest is from 1890. As long as you keep them lubricated, they last forever. People used to make a living on machines like these. New sewing machines are computerized plastic crap.

    One of the other thoughts I have about plastic is that it doesn’t develop a patina. The materials we have been using; wood, clay, metal, all develop a patina over the years. I suspect that’s why it doesn’t feel the same to us.

    • In my experience, plastic just gets brittle. If it is in the sun, it degrades, which is why we have to polish headlights on all new plastic cars. And those treadle sewing machines – we are about to use one to install two 18″ grindstones for the axes, machetes, mower blades, etc. on an old used treadle assembly at the farm

  5. Pingback: Never Yet Melted

  6. Not so fast mr oilman. My grandfather ran the family corner grocery till he retired. He had a pickle and sour kraut barrel to boot. Wooden crates are heavier than cardboard or plastic which raise transportation costs a lot. They hold less for a given volume. So if oil runs short wood will be at an even greater disadvantage. New auto engines a much more efficient and lighter than in the past. This allows them to haul all the airbags, better seats and insulation in a modern car. Let’s not start talking about rust shall we?

  7. I build in sandstone, the same stone the romans built by my house here in chester and I can still see there work 2000 years later.When putting railings in (cast and sometimes Victorian salvage)I use lead.I plan for my work to last as long as the houses I see around me and perhaps my great great grandchildren will look upon them and smile.

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