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The paradox of plastics

October 28, 2015
By Larry DeHays , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Back in the 1950s, an intelligent man who was an accomplished professional welder of exotic metals, assuming the role of mentor, gave me the following advice: "Get into plastics. Plastics are going to be the biggest thing going in the future." I hadn't a clue what he was talking about. The only plastic I was familiar with was the stuff that cheap toys were made out of. I certainly couldn't see why that stuff should be preferable to solid things like wood or steel. Well, I missed the part about forming complex shapes easily and being made from crude oil, which was cheaper than trees or iron ore.

He was right of course. Look around and you'll notice that almost everything is made of plastic. Look in our oceans and on our beaches and other places were trash accumulates, and you will see plastic.

Especially in our cars. Early cars had wooden dash boards, later going to steel. Probably named "dash" because that's what your head did when impacting it, they are now made of plastic, which is more forgiving than are most skulls.

Here's my dilemma. We're told that plastics will be there for 600 years, causing mountains of trash. How come then, many plastic parts on cars turn to powder after only a few years? Cadillacs in the 1970s had a plastic section between the rear fenders and the tail lights. This section rotted away on every one of those cars long before the fenders rusted. It was common to see Caddies driving down the road with the tail lights seeming to ghost along behind the car. The Cadillac Company soon ran out of replacement sections, probably because they rotted away on the shelf before they could be sold.

One of the many problems we face in the car repair industry is removing plastic parts to access deeper regions of the vehicle, like behind the dash board, and then reinstalling those plastic parts. After five to 10 years, many plastic parts become brittle. If they must be bent to unfasten or to remove, as many of them are, many of them will crack or crumble from the stress. This results in additional, unexpected repair expense to replace these plastic parts, and additional hot headed remarks from owners. To add insult to injury, many car companies don't carry those plastic parts after a car reaches 10 years of age, and the parts are specifically made for only that exact model of car, so they are not available from anyone else. If the part can be located in a recycle yard, it may be as deteriorated as the first one was.

A customer recently purchased a 20-year-old Lincoln, of which he was very proud because it had low mileage. What he failed to appreciate was that it had hundreds of plastic parts that were 20 years old. Mileage has nothing to do with it. One of his power windows failed. We replaced the broken plastic parts, and warned him that these cars were notorious for failing power windows. He nodded, but didn't really believe us. Later, one at a time, the other windows failed. We repaired them. It had a plastic intake manifold that cracked. We replaced it. He commented that he kept picking the car up after one repair and shortly having to come in again for a different repair. He wondered aloud if we were causing these repairs. We suggested he take it to a different repair facility for comparison.

The moral of this story is that plastic is used because it's cheap, not because it lasts 600 years. If a person wants a car that lasts a long time, he may have to find a da Vinci to carve one in marble or granite. Talk about a safe car in a collision. Hummer owners would switch to them in a heartbeat.

Repairing Fred Flintstone cars wouldn't be any cheaper than repairing plastic cars. We'd have to have bigger lifts and tools to handle them. I guess we should keep making them out of plastic from crude oil, so that they will be lighter and use less fuel from crude oil. Wait. What?



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