In the 1967 classic film, the Graduate, recent college graduate, Ben is receiving career advice from many of his father’s friends and Mr. McGuire offers the famous line – “I have just one word for you, Ben.” Working in the plastics industry, I hear that line quoted pretty often.

What might have his life been like had he heeded the advice and gotten involved in plastics instead of getting hooked up with Mrs. Robinson?  To find out, we need to trace the evolution of the plastics industry since the making of The Graduate.

Plastics were certainly around before the 60’s-nylon was invented in 1935 and found many uses during WWII.  Some plastics are even older.  But 1967 was at the beginning of the plastics revolution that would bring plastic products into every home and industry. Shampoo still came in glass bottles and many of the things we now think of as commonplace didn’t exist yet.  (Btw, if you’re ever in London check out the Museum of Brands for an interesting look at the evolution of brand packaging.)

Plastics in the Medical Industry

What would life be like without plastics in the medical industry where “the United States has the lowest rate of cross-staph infection in the world as a result of its use of plastic medical disposables?”

Nurses used to spend a lot of time carefully cleaning glass bottles and rubber tubes for reuse.  Needles had to be re-sharpened and sterilized after every use.  With the introduction of plastics, the entire medical industry was revolutionized in a few short decades. All the syringes, tubing, many of the instruments, equipment housing, prosthetic devices, artificial hips, knees and other joint replacements, and more are now made from plastics. “Nearly 100 percent of all pharmaceutical packaging <have tamper proof seals.> In addition, child-resistant caps help keep medicines away from little hands.”

Plastics made health care more efficient, less expensive, more accessible, and more affordable to countless Americans while prolonging and saving lives. With plastics, medical procedures are less painful, easier to administer and more effective than with other materials.

Plastics in Aerospace and Military Applications

“During the past 50 years, aeronautics technology has soared, with plastics playing a major role in both pragmatic improvements and dramatic advances.” Plastics are essential components in aircraft, missiles, satellites, and shuttles.

From injection molded parts to composites, protective coatings and high impact polystyrenes, plastics are essential to modern military operations.  The invention of Kevlar®, a para-aramid synthetic fiber that is five times stronger than steel by weight, made life safer for all kinds of servicemen and women.

Plastic materials also played a vital role in the NASA space program in 1969 and are behind many of the most significant developments in both military air power and civilian air travel.  Plastic components are also commonly used in commercial airplanes because of their light weight, resistance to corrosive environments, and relative strength.

Plastics in Transportation

Transportation would look entirely different if plastics had never been reduced.  Bumpers that once were made of heavy steel are now plastic composites, over 50% of the components in a modern aircraft are made from plastics, plastics are used for both the interiors and exterior of most automobiles, and designers are considering the use of plastics for the exterior of trains.

Plastics in Agriculture

Virtually unheard of in the agriculture industry at the time of The Graduate, plastics are now the “go to” materials to increase production, improve yields, increase safety, and improve food quality. For example, thanks to plastics irrigation pipes, crops are planted in desert areas, less water is wasted, reservoirs are easier to build and maintain, and greenhouses are more efficient.

Conclusion

Plastics have come a long way since Mr. McGuire whispered those fateful words back in 1967. Our world would look very different without the continued development of high performance polymers.

 

Should Ben have picked the plastics industry?  What advice would you give to graduates today?  Let us know in the comments section below.

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