The Park City Museum unwraps the plastic riddle
Plastic is a double-edged sword.
On one hand, it has helped modern life become safer and more convenient.
On the other hand, it has caused environmentally hazardous and life-threatening pollution.
This, in a nutshell, is what the "Plastics Unwrapped" exhibit at the Park City Museum is all about, said Courtney Titus, the nonprofit’s curator of collections and exhibits.
"This is an exhibit that details the history of plastics that even reaches back to life before plastics," Titus said during an exhibit tour with The Park Record. "It examines what we did before this ‘miracle’ material [was invented] to why and how it was developed, and the benefits and problems that are the results of plastics in our lives."
The exhibit was organized by the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle, Titus said. Boeing and the University of Washington are sponsoring a national tour. The exhibit is currently on display in the Tozer Gallery until Jan. 1.
"There is no denying that plastic has made our lives better in many ways, but plastic pollution is a global problem that we are just beginning to understand," Titus said. "One big reason is that plastic, unlike paper and cardboard, does not degrade quickly. It takes thousands of years for it to go away."
Even then, it only breaks down into micro plastics that absorb toxic pollutants.
"This is a major cause of wildlife death," Titus said. "Animals think the bits are food and eat it, but can’t digest it."
Plastic pollution is found in forests, wetlands, deserts and oceans.
"Marine debris is a tragic situation," Titus said. "Animals also get trapped in ‘ghost nets’ and can’t swim and they die, and that’s a huge problem."
One section of the exhibit includes a cotton jacket waterproofed by oil, bone-handled hair accessories, and wooden Tinker Toys.
"These items show us the materials that we used before we started using plastics and how we had to shape those materials for use," Titus said. "It took a lot of time to do things like this and also, many of the items we used back then were more cherished and taken care of. They reused and repaired them over and over again. When plastics were invented, everything changed. and our culture became one of disposability."
Plastic was actually around before World War II, but it was the war that created a strong need for the material because it was used in items that helped the war effort.
"After the war, factories had a large capacity to create more plastic items, and needed to create a public demand," Titus said. "The cost to produce plastic items was the same if factories made 100 items or 10,000 items, so that’s when it began to be used for consumer products."
That meant more sales.
"The exhibit shows that the more things people threw away, the more things they would buy to replace those things," Titus pointed out.
Another point that "Plastics Unwrapped" makes is that plastic isn’t made up of one material.
"It’s actually a family of materials made up of different chemical combinations, and that’s why you can’t throw them all into one recycling bin," Titus said. "That’s where the recycling code numbers that are located on the bottoms of water bottles come from. We have a section that talks about those numbers and the chemical makeup of each item."
The exhibit also examines the benefits and drawbacks of plastics in the medical field.
"This is a great example of showing both sides of the issue because plastics have helped create safe and sterile environments and have created items such as prosthetics, hearing aids, contact lenses and things like that," Titus said. "At the same time, we have a case filled that shows the plastic waste of one surgery. When you think about all the thousands of surgeries done only in one day, you can get the idea of just how much nonrecyclable waste they produce."
Still, the exhibit doesn’t just show the pros and cons of plastics. It also gives suggestions of how we can change our lifestyles to solve these problems and reduce plastic pollution.
"One solution is to stop using plastic water bottles and use refillable containers," Titus said. "Another way is to use reusable shopping bags or paper bags and support plastic-bag bans in your community, which is something that Recycle Utah is doing.
"We are also planning to host a couple of locals’ free day on Nov. 10 and Dec. 8," she said. "For both of those free days, Recycle Utah will be here from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. and will have a lot of information about what they do."
In addition, the museum is collaborating with the Park City Film Series for a free screening of Angela Sun’s documentary "Plastic Paradise" at 7 p.m. on Nov. 5 at the Jim Santy Auditorium. The screening is directly tied to the "Plastics Unwrapped" exhibit, Titus said.
"Plastics Unwrapped" is now on exhibit at the Park City Museum, 528 Main St., through Jan. 1. For more information, visit http://www.parkcityhistory.org.
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