Thursday, 30 August 2012

Elephant No. 333: Plastic Animals

I've drawn an elephant made of elephants before for this blog, but when I came across a tube of plastic animals a couple of days ago, it occurred to me that I might also be able to use them to make an elephant.

The word "plastic" comes from the Greek plastikos, meaning "capable of being shaped or moulded"—a key characteristic of the polymers which end up as plastic toys and the like.

The earliest plastics were derived from organic materials such as egg proteins, which are themselves polymers. One of the most common plastic-type materials during the Middle Ages in Europe was cattle horn, which was used to shield lantern flames. The earliest manufacture of a sort of plastic was actually the production of a material that mimicked horn, made by blending milk protein (casein) with lye.

During the nineteenth century, materials similar to modern plastics were developed. One of the key discoveries on the road to developing modern plastics was vulcanization. Vulcanization was essentially a means of producing durable rubber by heating it, leading to a whole new world of products using heat-setting technologies.

The first true plastic material was parkesine, invented in 1856 by Alexander Parkes of Birmingham, England. Interestingly, Parkes produced his plastic using cellulose—which makes it not that dissimilar from the newest crop of water bottles, produced using corn cellulose. Parkesine was made by adding nitric acid to cellulose. The resulting compound could then be heated to make it malleable and mouldable; it could also be tinted to look like ivory.

The first fully synthetic plastic material was Bakelite, invented in 1909 by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland. Made from phenol and formaldehyde, bakelite was discovered by accident. Baekeland had been looking to make an insulating coating for wires in motors and generators by combining phenol and formaldehyde. He later discovered, however, that the sticky material he'd concocted could also be mixed with wood dust, asbestos and powdered slate to create strong composite materials. Originally used for electrical and mechanical parts, by the 1920s bakelite in widespread use for everything from household goods to jewellery.

Bakelite bracelets.

Although we generally think of plastic as being completely synthetic, most plastics are made of organic polymers. These are usually chains of carbon atoms, either alone or combined with oxygen, sulphur or nitrogen. Inorganic compounds are usually added to the mix, depending on what the plastic is for. Food wrap, for example, containes no additives, while electronic components can be more than 50 per cent inorganic. Many plastics also contain fillers such as chalk, colourants, fire retardants and stabilizers.

In addition to petrochemical-based plastics, there are biodegradable plastics, which are essentially plastics that contain starch, allowing them to fragment more easily. This does not mean that they break down completely. There are also bioplastics, which are produced with cellulose from corn and other plants.

Because most plastics degrade slowly, they can have a significant impact on the environment. Since the 1950s, one billion tonnes of plastics have been discarded. In addition, plastics bags which are not recycled can become a danger to animals—both marine and land-based—who often ingest plastic when scavenging for scraps of food. The greatest threat to animal life, however, is "nurdles": small pre-plastic pellets that animals often mistake for food. Nurdles kill large numbers of fish and birds each year.

Nurdles on the seashore. They are often mistaken
for fish eggs by birds and marine life.

At present, one of the world's most significant concentrations of discarded plastic is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a gigantic floating "island" of debris in the Pacific Ocean. It is currently larger than the continental United States.

This is not to say that all plastics are bad. Plastics can be turned back into hydrocarbons through proper incineration, providing a source of fuel. Plastics can also be melted down again and reused. The problem is often a lack of political will when it comes to recycling plastics, and a disinclination to cover the costs of recycling technologies which are still relatively new.

There are several types of plastics, all with different properties and uses. This is a partial list of the most common types of plastic and their uses:

• Polyester (PES): fibres and textiles
• Polyethylene (PE): grocery bags, bottles
• Polyethylene terephthalate (PET): jars, bottles, plastic wrap
• High-density polyethylene (HDPE): milk jugs, moulded cases, detergent bottles
• Low-density polyethylene (LDPE): patio furniture, floor tiles, shower curtains
• Polyvinyl chloride (PVC): plumbing pipes, window frames, flooring, shower curtains
• Polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC/Saran): food wrap
• Polypropylene (PP): carpeting, straws, yogurt containers, car bumpers, household appliances
• Polystyrene (PS): packaging peanuts, food containers, CD cases, plastic tableware
• Polycarbonate (PC): CDs, eyeglasses, traffic lights, riot shields
• Plastarch (made of modified corn starch): water bottles

1-PETE 2–HDPE 3-PVC 4-LDPE 5-PP 6-PS 7-Other

1: Polyethylene terephthalate
2: High-density polyethylene
3: Polyvinyl chloride
4. Low-density polyethylene
5. Polypropylene
6. Polystyrene
7. All others

Although the cheapo tube of animals I had for today's elephant lacked the nicety of a little symbol, the animals are likely made of polystyrene. Polystyrene is inexpensive and foams when produced, making it eminently mouldable and an excellent choice for cheap toys.

This was the small pile of animals I had to work with. It contained several giraffes, numerous camels, a few lions, a few rhinos, a few elephants, two or three maybe-a-cows, two monkeys and two palm trees. The package also contained a small plastic sheet with a map of the world to tell me where these animals come from—other than a factory in China. It's actually not a bad little set for less than three dollars.

My first idea was to just kind of sweep these into some kind of elephant shape, as I had with my jelly bean post a week or so ago. Then I decided to see if I could lock these together somehow and make something that would hold a shape.

Easier said than done with these particular animals, because they're just not meant to lock together. I managed to link a few together to make an abstract head, but it took me nearly half an hour to figure this out and make it stay put.

This clearly hadn't frustrated me enough, because I was fool enough to try a three-dimensional standing elephant next. I won't even bother to show my various attempts. I spent about 45 minutes fiddling with various combinations, but it either wouldn't stand up, or looked like a decapitated triceratops when laid flat.

I went back to my original idea, and tried placing the animals in some kind of elephant shape. This worked okay, but it wasn't all that easy, either. If I wasn't positive about where I wanted an animal to go and decided to shift something, the whole thing moved around and I had to redo most of what I'd already done.

Eventually I'd had enough of playing with plastic animals. Plastic animals are really better left in the hands of children, who make interesting noises while marching them around the floor.

In the end, although trying to form an elephant from a plastic menagerie was an interesting exercise, I'm not looking to repeat it anytime soon.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although elephants sometimes rampage through city streets, it's very rare that they decide to invade a restaurant. In late April 2005, however, that's exactly what a trio of circus elephants decided to do.

Patrons and staff of a restaurant in Seoul, South Korea dove under tables and hid in closets as three elephants charged through the kitchen and into the main restaurant. The elephants, who were clearly in a mood, moved through the room tossing chairs, crushing stools, and overturning tables. They also paused to munch on carrots and other tasty treats.

The trouble started when the elephants were in the middle of a parade at the Seoul Children's Grand Park. One of the elephants became spooked by the crowd and bolted. And where one elephant goes, the rest usually follow. Soon there were six elephants on the loose, running towards the centre of town. Three were caught fairly quickly, but the other three made it to the back entrance of a restaurant.

After scavenging through the bins outside the restaurant's kitchen door, the elephants decided to push their way into the kitchen, and from there into the restaurant itself. Smashing through doors and glass, they trashed the entire room before their keepers caught up with them, calmed them, and led them away.

The restaurant was closed for a month after the disaster. The owner used the insurance money to remodel the restaurant, renaming it "Restaurant Where Elephants Have Been". Sales soon doubled, leading one of the restaurateurs to say, "What can I say about the elephants? Thank you for causing the trouble? Well, that just might be right."

Elephant finally ready to leave the scene of the crime, 2005.

To Support Elephant Welfare

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