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Article: Paper Or Plastic - It used to be paper, now it's plastic.

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Paper or Plastic

A customer comes to the checkout counter with their loaded down shopping cart, the clerk asks, “Paper or Plastic ma’am?” We don’t even think about it, it’s just the way things are. Paper or plastic. It’s where we are in the world these days. However, the last time I went shopping with the wife I started thinking about that very subject. You know, paper or plastic, and how far we’ve come in the last couple of decades. Stop and think about it; how many different things were paper based products, but is now plastic? The list runs the gambit from the phones we all carry to the way things are packaged. Just about every item in a household is affected by plastic these days.

The modern world as we know it today is so much different than just a few generations ago. It’s a constantly evolving and ever changing system of checks and balances to our existence. Each new technical advancement, whether it’s in plastics or electronics, brings on its own set of problems as well as making us aware of our previous technical failures. Along with these ever improving, ever changing advancements in technology, we’ve also been made aware of how crucial it is to be the custodians of our environment, and how fragile the eco system really is.

I can remember back in my early years as a mechanic when oil cans were made with cardboard sides and metal ends. There was a funnel/spout that you had to shove into the top of the can so that you could pour it into the car. Once in a while you’d stab a can, and instead of the spout going through the lid it would crush the side of the cardboard can. Makes an awful mess when that happens, and when it did I’d get the typical lecture about being a greenhorn kid who didn’t even know how to open a can of oil.

There was a time when most things manufactured used more natural products than plastics. A natural product such as cotton or paper may have been the only thing available at the time. However, being a natural product it tended to degrade and deteriorate with time and weather. Those old oil cans pretty much disappeared after a while. The lids would rust away, and the cardboard just seemed to vanish. Then, when plastics came along it made a world of difference how everyday items were produced. Now, with the all plastic oil cans there’s not much in the way of deteriorating or degrading.

Gone was the lonely oil can spout too! The first plastic oil cans looked very similar to the old cardboard cans, so there for a time you still needed the old spout. It took a while before they finally made them with the shape we know today. I kept one of those old style oil can spout/funnels in my tool box for a long time. Don’t know why I did, and I’m not too sure where it is, but I’ll bet it’s still there… somewhere.

The change from paper to plastics not only brought on changes to the cars, but also how the mechanics repaired them. Who else remembers setting a set of points with a paper match book cover? (For you younger techs you might have to go ask one of the old salty dogs in the shop what a set of points are, and while you’re at it ask him what a match book cover is, too.) All that timing and dwell issues we used to have to deal with is handled by a small sensor mounted in a piece of plastic these days.

Shop work orders are another thing that plastics have taken over. They used to be made up of several sheets of paper with a carbon paper between the copies. Ya had to press hard to get through all the layers, and it wasn’t uncommon to have someone come back with their receipt that you couldn’t even read. That evolved into the carbonless copies, then to a rough paper copy that the mechanic could scratch out what was being done and then it would be sent to the front office where the entire invoice would be typed into a computer. It took banks of filing cabinets to store all the invoices too. Today, the whole process is almost entirely paperless with laptops the mechanic uses to fill out work orders, and all the data can be stored on a small plastic thumb drive.

A lot of car components have changed from a paper based product to plastic as well. The old “rope” type rear seal changed over to the new and improved one piece plastic/rubber seal. Nearly all of the gaskets on an engine used to be made from paper or cork. There might still be a few hold outs using paper for their gaskets, but for the most part all the gaskets today are a composite material made with some form of plastic or paper coated with plastic resin.

Along with these changes from paper to plastic we also had to take a good look at our environment as well. Not just the smog but the recycling aspects. Right now, the automobile is the most widely recycled consumer product, even with all the various plastics they contain. That alone is pretty impressive. But, the stringent US emission standards don’t hold true all over the globe. Pollution levels in China, Mexico, and Africa are at staggering levels.

But, if you’re curious whether or not there’s even more changes in store for us, well, look no further than your local grocery store. Back when groceries stores bagged everything only with paper sacks, you’d take your groceries home and save the bags for a rainy day. Everybody had a stack of paper sacks tucked away somewhere. I think my grandmother had the market cornered on paper grocery bags though, she had a room full of them.

Then, along came the plastic bag. It took up less space at the end of the checkout counter and were cheaper to make. Just like the paper sack, the plastic bag did have a secondary use when it was home. Most of time as a trash bag, which ended up right where you didn’t want to put them… in the landfill. Nowadays, that’s changing as well. A lot of major grocery stores offer discounts if you bring your own reusable shopping bags with you. In our household we’ve made the change to reusable insulated grocery bags quite some time ago, and I really don’t miss having those paper or plastic bags stuffed somewhere in the house.

I could see this catching on in other stores as well. I think it would be a safe prediction to say that sometime in the future everyone will be carrying their own bags into department stores, shoe stores, appliance stores, 7-11’s, liquor stores, and perhaps even parts stores too!

We’ve come a long way in taking on the responsibility for the eco system that we are leaving for the next generation, and I’m sure even better and better technical advancements will improve on what we already have.

So, I think I’m going to start something new at the shop. When I’m at the service counter with somebody ready to check out, I’m going to ask them, “Will that be paper or plastic?” Just to see their reaction. Hey, money is made from paper, credit cards are plastic, why not? I just wonder how long it will be before the dollar is more plastic than cotton fibers and paper? I guess that’s the kind of change that will change our change.



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