If this month’s cover story has a familiar ring to you, it’s because this is not the first time the big OPP breakthrough has been announced. In fact, the last time experts excitedly proclaimed the arrival of oriented polypropylene bottles was 1989. If you’ve been around long enough, you know The Next Big Thing in Plastics might mean the next decade or even the one after that.
The plastics industry grew up with a Jack-the-Giant-Killer attitude: “We can do anything!” Maybe so, but sometimes it takes a while. How many of yesterday’s “breakthroughs” have yet to happen? We’re still waiting for plastic beer bottles to hit the big time. Plastic cans are another concept with a big future—that’s still in the future. As for shipping drums, experts could smell a breakthrough coming way back in ’87. Well, 25 years later, plastic drums hold less than 15% of the market, says Freedonia Group in Cleveland.
Automotive plastics have seen many “revolutionary” developments but few real revolutions. Progress comes mostly in a series of small steps. Plastic-skinned cars arrived with fanfare in the 1980s with the Pontiac Fiero and Chevy Lumina van. Today, the only all-plastic skins are on niche vehicles like the Corvette and Viper and on the midget Smart car in Europe.
In construction, where is the plastic house we were promised? GE’s 1989 plastics demonstration house was way ahead of its time. It’s now closed to visitors.
What else? Plastic pallets are a great idea but only 7% of the market worldwide. Plastic paper? Barely a wrinkle in that gigantic market. Major appliance panels? They’ve hardly scratched sheet metal. Biodegradable plastics? They’ll brew a bit longer. And plastics recycling as a way of life? Some dreams are evergreen.