Sustainably Yours: Plastic in its Place

I remember once reading an essay on homesteading where the author recounted his first forays into free-range chicken husbandry. It was a disaster. He had loosely surrounded his cabin and yard with fencing, thinking that by keeping the fowl close at hand he would save steps tending to them and better be able to monitor their welfare. His dogs could watch both house and flock simultaneously. Granted, the convenience factor of being able to assess other living beings from one’s porch is legitimate.  And it goes without saying that chickens being able to do their chicken things with minimum constraints is important morally. However, with this fence placement, the chickens were excreting all around the house, the porch, the outdoor furniture, walkways, and kids play equipment (the homesteader’s convenience theories extended to the kids). The dogs were rolling in it, the flies were attracted to it. For those not aware, fresh chicken manure does not come out in neat dehydrated pellets either. Plus, any disturbances in the chicken pecking order caused the guard dogs to go wild and make matters worse, resulting in pet pandemonium. All in all, it was chicken manure (and chickens) out of place.

Phase 2, in the case of this homestead, was to move the coop and fencing to an adjacent orchard. The birds were still free to roam, but this time their manure was fertilizing the fruit trees. The fallen fruit was nourishing the fowl. Additionally the birds were providing excellent pest control. They were close enough to monitor but not close enough to make the homesteader miss urban comforts. This is a classic example of something beneficial being out of place due to human error and becoming problematic.

The same lesson even applies to water. Obviously, water is one of our most primal and fundamental needs. When quenching thirst or bathing, water is wonderful. But the same water flooding your basement or sweeping your car away in a flash flood won’t inspire the same reaction. Water out of place is a beneficial element gone awry.

When it comes to plastics, I think we can all agree that the volume of plastic in this world is too high. The nonchalance towards it, cavalier disposability and quantity is out of control. And let it be stated that non-recyclable plastic types like PVC and foams are environmental deadly sins, closely tied to corporate greed and dangerous consumer ambivalence. Islands of plastic the size of Texas adrift in the ocean is most definitely a horror. That said, to wholesale demonize the material itself is to over simplify plastic. In many cases, the fact that plastics are out of place, clogging natural systems because of our mismanagement, is like saying water or chickens are inherently bad because they are at the wrong spot at the wrong time.

Plastic has some truly incredible features, which is the whole reason it has a volume problem: it repels water, bugs don’t eat it, it is lightweight, doesn’t break easily and it is infinitely recyclable. When Green Peace is at sea chasing down whale killers, they are not motoring about in a bamboo vessel or hollowed out logs covered in pine pitch. Plastics suitable for marine use like HDPE are truly incredible “meta materials”. And if there were ever some post-apocalypse, grid-down zombie future, I’d be hard pressed to choose between a plastic jug of water to escape with versus a heavy and fragile glass bottle.

I can’t help but wonder that as oil, the feedstock material of all plastics, becomes scarcer and more expensive, whether our species’ attitude towards plastic will become reverent and conservationist. It seems that when any resource is cheap, plastic or otherwise, humans undervalue and overexploit it. Think Buffalo on the Great Plains. Unfortunately, it is mainly when there is true accounting and true-value pricing, or the great reckoning of depletion and extinction, that many humans become conservationists by default.

However, there are those of us who anticipate these scenarios, and also value the positive features that plastic can offer. One of the best examples is the organization, Precious Plastic ( This is a 40 thousand member community founded by Dave Hakkens in 2013. The prime function of this project is to open source plans for modular machines that empower communities to capture, shred and re-extrude recycled plastics into useful and beautiful new commodities. The organization features forums, plans, videos, and tutorials that inspire regular people to become not only recycling warriors, but to go a step further by transforming this raw material into sellable items, directly contributing to the economy and conserving virgin natural materials. Locally speaking, both the American School PV and Sayulimpia are initiating the creation of these machines to benefit their communities.

While some may disagree with the above synopsis on plastic, I hope we can all agree on this: that the transformation of trash into treasure is a beautiful thing.

Precious Plastic machines

Emily Majewski
Emily Majewski is Co-Founder of PHYTOSTONE, a small firm based in Nayarit dedicated to creating advanced natural materials for home and garden.