The greatest innovations of the past century were possible in large part due to advancements in the field of material science. The Space Race, for example, was defined by the introduction of new materials such as metal alloys for the space-ship hull, silicon for the electronics, and carbon compounds for heat-shields. The newest material trends are biomaterials and nanotechnology, both of which will dramatically alter medicine and energy. Arguably the most impactful material innovation in recent memory however, is plastic.
Plastic is both the hero and the villain of our story. Plastics are cheap, easy to manufacture, and above all -- malleable. That plastic can be shaped as desired explains why they exist in automobiles, household goods, furniture, toys, and many other facets of daily life. See if you can spot how much plastic exists in your immediate vicinity. Plastic is the past, but also the future. 3D printers, now regularly found in niche businesses and universities, exploit the extreme versatility of plastic by allowing you to print anything you can model and put in a USB drive.
Plastic is not infallible however. For all its incredible properties, it has one major shortcoming -- a slow decomposition rate. In other words, discarded plastic that ends up in a landfill or the ocean generally stays there. This becomes a serious issue when you realize that studies estimate the cumulative human production of plastic at 8.3 billion tons. Though there are numerous organizations attempting to clean the oceans, more plastic is coming in than their combined efforts can remove. Ultimately, stemming the flow of plastic into the ocean is a more efficient means of dealing with what has become an environmental disaster.
A slow decomposition rate may actually be a good thing, given how incredible of a material plastic is. Used plastic is a valued commodity. Many plastics can be melted down and given new life; a child's toy may later become your computer's keyboard. Recycling is not simply an idea for do-gooders, but a business-minded practice. However, the scale of recycling has yet to reach a level where the tide of plastics entering the ocean can be reversed. David Katz, CEO and founder of The Plastic Bank, has developed an interesting solution, which he describes in his 2017 TED@IBM talk.
Imagine if we considered plastic a form of global currency, called social plastic. Social plastic has its own economy. Stores are taking social plastic as payment in exchange for school tuition, clothing, and cell-phone minutes. Thanks to the work of David Katz and his plastic bank team, social plastic is already a thriving currency in Haiti and the Philippines. The social plastic economy is expected to expand to India, Ethiopia, and Brazil next. As David states, "Social plastic is money, a globally recognizable and tradable currency that, when used, alleviates poverty and cleans the environment at the same time."
Mahdi Al-Husseini is the volunteer organizer of TEDxDouglasville, a senior at Georgia Tech studying biomedical engineering and public policy, and a U.S. Army cadet.