The year was 1967, and the film was The Graduate.
Based on the book of the same name, written four years earlier, the film spawned a number of catch phrases and launched the career of Dustin Hoffman. We’re all familiar with: “Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me!”, but likely less familiar with Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock’s interaction with Mr. McGuire.
Braddock, a disillusioned 21-year-old, encounters his father’s friend at his post-graduation party at his parent’s house. As Braddock tries in vain to escape the adoration and attention of his parent’s friends, Mr. McGuire corners him and tells Braddock that a viable career would be in “plastics”. Mr. McGuire concludes: “There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
Plastics also have a cameo in Billy Wilder’s 1954 film Sabrina. Humphrey Bogart’s character Linus Larrabee owns a formula for a sugarcane-based plastic and attempts to marry his brother into the family who owns one of the largest holdings of sugarcane in Puerto Rico. Larrabee even designs a translucent plastic hammock - complete with a strategically placed hole - for his convalescent brother and his sore backside.
Yes, plastic even had an integral role in a romantic comedy.
Jane Fonda’s spaceage Barbarella costumes, prominently featuring clear plastic windows, enthralled the imaginations of audiences in 1968 and inspired risque fashion for decades. The malleable material, consisting of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds, was probably the driving force for ticket sales behind the box office dud.
Ah, wonderful plastic. The burgeoning industry that came of age in the early-20th century and brought us Bakelite housewares, vinyl, ethylene, acrylic, nylon, fibreglass, Tupperware and fuelled mass consumption around the world. The inexpensive material solidified its place in popular culture through Hollywood and morphed into our homes and lives at an explosive rate. We embraced it for its versatility, low cost and enduring lifespan.
By the 1970s we started taking note of this enduring lifespan, notably with single-use plastics and their persistent presence in landfills and micro plastics' presence in the planet’s natural ecosystems. The industry’s dependency on fossil fuels and the resulting Greenhouse gas emissions also raised an eyebrow.
Once a celebrated, innovative milestone for humankind, we’re feeling some shame for our dependency on plastic. Plastic straws are being replaced with paper, ‘retro’ brown paper grocery bags are back in select stores and plastic water bottles evoke side-eye and judgment from the masses. Even Rocky View Schools discourages parents from packing lunches with excessive packaging.
Last Friday (Jan. 31) the national grocery chain Sobey’s banned plastic bags from their stores across Canada. It’s likely other chains will follow, but not before Canadians start stocking their homes with store-bought plastic to use for their household garbage and other storage needs.
While we’ve all grown up with the stuff, it’s difficult to break ties with it completely. Baby steps. We might eventually get used to soggy straws, remembering our fabric grocery bags on every shopping trip, limp plastic-free veggies that we pull from our fridge or washing out our kid’s reusable bags from their lunches daily.
As consumers, it would be gratifying to feel supported by manufacturers who also do their best to eliminate plastic from their excessive packaging. Maybe it’s long overdue for our government to step in and offer incentives for companies who practice restraint with limited packing.
Together we can progress away from Mr. McGuire’s “great future” in plastics.