If you travel to Europe anytime soon, try not to gulp too hard when you look at the prices on a restaurant menu or in a shop-window display. If you want to get a sense of relative value, just close your eyes and try to pretend it’s still 2002, when you could think of Euros as equivalent to dollars. And when your pulse starts racing at the sky-high prices of plastics these days—who would believe polystyrene near a dollar a pound?—try to remember that today’s resins are cheap compared to the days when the plastics industry was just starting to hit its stride.
The accompanying table compares actual prices reported in Plastics Technology in 1955 (the year we began publication) and 10 years later, in 1965 (by which time, polypropylene was commercially available). I used figures from the Producer Price Index for plastics materials (or chemicals and allied products for years when plastics figures weren’t available), obtainable from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov) to adjust the older prices for inflation.
Two things stand out when I look at those figures. It may not make you feel much better about today’s resin prices to see how expensive (in relative terms) plastics were 43 and 53 years ago. But it is kind of amazing to think about how the new kid on the block—plastics—was able to muscle in on established materials like wood, paper, metal, and concrete, despite those high prices. The answer, in today’s terminology, was “value in use,” and in those days most of the uses were durable rather than disposable throw-aways. The second interesting thing that the figures suggest is how economies of scale and improved production technology made plastics decline in price over 10 years.
There may be a lesson in all this regarding today’s newest kids on the block—biopolymers, the topic of this month’s cover story. When they first enter the marketplace, they can be somewhat expensive. But value in use—in this case, perhaps mainly the social or psychological value of eco-friendliness—will ultimately determine their success. The second point is that biopolymers can be expected to become more cost-effective as production volume increases. We have already seen how polylactic acid (PLA) came onto the market at $3/lb in 1995, dropped to $1.30/lb in 2002 and then to 85¢/lb last year.
One more comment about biopolymers: This month’s cover story is about what additive suppliers are doing to remedy the weaknesses of early-generation biopolymers in terms of toughness, heat resistance, and processability. It puts me in mind of the early days of PVC. That resin needed a lot of help in those same areas—and look at how much better it is today, thanks to the right additives.