All made of ticky-tacky

I know what you’re thinking.

Did he fire six shots, or only five?

No, wrong movie.  But I can feel the massive cosmic “huh?” from here.  Why is a woodworker talking about plastic?

The reason I was thinking about it, and thus writing about it, is three-fold.  For one, workshops are apparently passé.  Everything is “makerspace” now.  The second thing was the arrival of consumer-grade 3D printers at the  big box stores.  ONLY $999!  Finally, I’ve noticed many one-use plastic items (like pop bottles) with labels that say something like “This widget made from plants!”

So this distilled into a thought: why bother with woodworking?  If you can make plastic from plants and run it through a 3D printer, why put up with the splinters?  Doesn’t the arrival of bioplastic and easy access to printers mean that cutting trees down is obsolete and that now all trees can be protected as a natural resource or some such?


The best I can come up with is “maybe, but not really”.

Bioplastics are an interesting idea.  Instead of using oil for the organic carbon chains (is it odd to think of plastic as organic?), you use various forms of plant starch.  The first successful plastic, celluloid, was actually made from cellulose, so I guess you could call it “traditional” plastic.  Now the strange part about this is that while some bioplastics are plant-based, they don’t decompose.  Seems odd, but there you go.

All plastic biodegrades.  It sounds counterintuitive, but let me expand.  The living world has a way to break down everything, even the One Ring.  Just as water, UV, and thermal cycling will reduce a mountain to gravel, so also will those same processes reduce a bleach bottle to dust.  The trick is that while all plastics biodegrade, almost none of them decompose.  Two different things.

The Pacific Garbage Patch is pretty well-known among the various eco-whatsits.  It’s supposed to be the swirling vortex of Western detritus.  And it does exist.  But instead of a maelstrom of cigarette butts and tampon applicators (the typical scum at the top of our local water purification plant), it’s pretty empty out there.  But if you start running a net, the water is more like soup from all the plastic particles that have been broken down again and again.  It turns into an aqueous solution of plastic, essentially, because while it biodegrades, it doesn’t decompose.

So on to bioplastics.  They are, in many cases, more expensive than oil based plastics.  And the ones that decompose readily are even more expensive.  Add to that the fact that to make a plastic decompose easily essentially means making it weak on purpose, and there’s not a lot of good in it.  So that’s why it’s used for all the cheap, throwaway stuff.  Wood, on the other hand, will be strong enough to hold up houses and bridges, yet will decompose readily if you want it to.  Simply expose it to the weather and nature does the rest.

Now let’s turn to the feedstocks.  Most of your bioplastics are using corn or soy, or some other cultivated crop.  That’s not a good thing.  For one, it means that the ever scarcer arable land in the world is growing plastic, not food.  The same problem exists with ethanol.  We don’t see it much here in America, but overseas it can jack up food prices for those who can least afford it.  And that’s just with fuel.  If now a limited amount of acres has to provide food, fuel, and feedstocks for your plastic industry, your food costs increase again.

One benefit of trees is that, like grazing animals, you don’t need to cultivate the ground.  Historically, grazers proliferate in mountainous terrain.  Ploughing such terrain is not only dangerous, but futile because it bares the earth on your hillsides and all the soil erodes away.  You can run cattle over the same ground (in a mob grazing paradigm) and it will be fine.  Trees also don’t need cultivated.  They grow just fine in places no tractor can get to.  Felling trees selectively keeps the soil in place, and allows you to still have productive use of marginal (for cultivation) areas.  Add to that the various other benefits (clean water, clean air, shade, etc.) that trees provide, and it’s hard to beat trees.

When it comes to 3D printers, I have a mixed opinion.  They are pretty neat, and they have a lot of interesting potential uses.  But setting aside the problems with getting your bioplastic to feed these printers, they seem to me to be a bit of a crutch, almost a jerry-rigged solution.

Instead of tapping away on a keyboard to be a “maker”, why not wield tools and be a craftsman?  Once you know how to cut a mortice or weld or whatever, you can use that in almost any situation that presents itself.  You aren’t limited by the size of your printer.  And what happens when you need to make a part for your electricity supply?  Oops!  The computer doesn’t run anymore!  Or what about longevity?  How many different devices or software have you had to learn how to run in the last ten years?  When’s the last time you bought a computer that had a disk drive in it?  How about trying to repair an old computer?  Or let’s go waaaaay back in prehistoric times (like when my dad started programming) and use punch cards!  What if your printing software only ran on an actual “floppy” disk?  That stuff is so obsolete it is forgotten.  But that’s only fifty years of evolution.  The capabilities are extensive, but brittle.  Contrast that with my tools that are on their second century of use.  They still work the same way.  And if I need parts for some reason that aren’t available, I can make them with the same skills.  The biggest advantage to 3D printing is that it takes time to develop those skills, and with a couple of generations now of kids who know only computers, you can make things without having to work at it.  That, I believe, is the root of why 3D printing has taken off: it allows production without work.

Bioplastics are coming into their own.  We still need and want plastics and oil is getting expensive to produce and hard to justify in this climate change era.  But bioplastics take up arable land and require an industrial setting to produce.  Trees can be grown on marginal ground, improving the environment, then selectively felled.  The tools and skills to turn that tree into useful things, from a spatula to a house, are readily available, even at an individual level.  All it takes is time and a little willingness to work at it.  So rather than try to ride the wave of the future, maybe the road to progress is really the old paths.