The Facts on Plastic

An exhibit at the History Center looks at ways we can recycle and reduce waste.

Approximately 3,000 plastic bags cover one wall illustrating the number we use each quarter of a second in the U.S. in the History Center’s exhibit, “Plastics Unwrapped.”

Courtesy Orange County Regional History Center

Our love/hate relationship with all things plastic—we love the versatility but hate the environmental cost—is explored in “Plastics Unwrapped,” on exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center downtown through April 23.

Developed by the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, the exhibit looks at life before plastics (think glass bottles for baby and wooden legs as prosthetics), the science behind plastics, what happens when we discard them, and what’s ahead for the “material of the future.”

 “The exhibit tries to strike a balance,” says Pamela Schwartz, the History Center’s chief curator. “There are bad things about plastics and good things, especially in science and the medical field.” And in the field of home building.

A Tiny House designed and built by Zack Giffin, co-host of Tiny House Nation on the FYI channel, is part of the exhibit. Built to demonstrate how plastics can improve energy efficiency, the house was taken on tour nationwide but didn’t include a stop in Orlando—until now. 

“We brought it in specifically as a supplement” to the exhibit, Schwartz says, because it fit the theme so perfectly.

The 170-square-foot house uses readily available plastic building materials that can help homeowners save energy costs on a house of any size. Among the materials:

  • Spray polyurethane foam insulation expands to fill spaces in walls and attics, sealing tough-to-reach corners and cracks.
  • Plastic sealants and caulking fill gaps around pipes, air ducts, plug outlets and other places where outside air can enter a house.
  • Polycarbonate skylights provide natural light, thermal resistance and UV protection to save energy.
  • Solar shingles protect roofs and generate renewable energy.
  • Cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) pipes retain more heat in hot water lines, reducing energy needs.
  • Plastic composite decking resists infestation and decay and is low maintenance and long-lasting.
  • Vinyl windows resist heat and cold, making them excellent insulators.
  • A polyurethane/fiberglass front door provides resistance to heat and cold.
  • Luxury vinyl flooring provides a waterproof barrier between indoors and out.

The facts about plastic are the most eye-opening aspect of the exhibit, Schwartz says. “There’s a whole wall that’s just plastic grocery bags.” The corresponding text panel says that 3,000 plastic bags are used every quarter of a second in the United States.  Says Schwartz: “To see the visual is really kind of astounding.”

The exhibit wraps up with a section called “Rethink,” Schwartz says.  It’s a guide to the many eco-friendly choices homeowners can make to reduce, reuse and recycle for a healthier environment, whether they live in a Tiny House or a McMansion. Among the recommendations:

  • Recycle plastics, including caps and lids as well as containers.
  • Say “no” to bottled water.
  • Choose products recycled from plastic—clothing, toys for kids and pets, athletic shoes, handbags, wallets, rugs, patio furniture, etc.
  • Choose biodegradable products such as compostable cups, utensils and garbage bags.

The overarching message for homeowners, Schwartz says, is “Yes, we can use plastic, but we should be able to recycle it and find better uses and alternative materials.” 

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