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Castle Lecture Series

Plasticene in Progress: What Innovation in Plastic Can Tell Us About the Anthropocene

This lecture is part of the monthly Castle Lecture Series hosted by the Smithsonian's Grand Challenges Consortia.

Odile Madden
Research Scientist
Museum Conservation Institute
April 23, 2014
Noon – 1:00pm EDT

The capacity of humans for technology is central to the Anthropocene. We manipulate the earth’s resources to create "useful" things on a massive scale, thereby causing changes globally.  Toward the end of the Industrial Revolution, coincident with many other indicators of the Anthropocene, there began a material revolution whereby naturally occurring polymers, like rubber and cotton, were recognized as having interesting properties and great commercial potential.  So began an iterative innovation process of seeking uses for these substances, discovering their shortcomings, and working to overcome those weaknesses through experimentation.  By the mid 20th century the Plastic Age was well underway; synthetic polymers were increasingly common, transforming our lives in profound, mundane, and amusing ways. Though pervasive and terrifically useful, plastic is still a young, astonishingly diverse, and evolving material.  Critical to the innovation process is recognition of its successes and also the tradeoffs, many of which only become apparent with time - material failure, resource competition and depletion, waste management, and risks to human health and the environment, for example.  The evolution of plastic shows that these are complex issues and that tension over unexpected consequences also can motivate change and identify targets for innovation.

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The presentation will be webcast and archived on this page.