Living without polypropylene for a week

Cold turkey

14 May 2008 14:05  [Source: ICB]

Chemicals rule our lives. But is it possible to live without just one of them and go cold turkey for a week?

Why not pick a chemical and take the challenge yourself, even for a day? Let us know how you get on at our new ICIS connect community website.

Andy Brice/London

HOW MUCH do we rely on chemicals?

Since starting work on ICIS Chemical Business' predecessor, European Chemical News, just over four years ago, I've come to realize the vast reach of the chemical sector. It seems that no part of our lives is untouched by the products you read about on these pages every week.

At home not so long ago, watching the television, I saw an advertisement from a European petrochemical major explaining the broad range of applications that its products help to create. I can't remember ever seeing a chemical company publicize its activities at prime time before. How many consumers had even heard of the firm before watching those three minutes of footage? It got me thinking.

Does the public really know about chemicals? Are consumers aware that they rely on petrochemicals and polymers each and every day? And are chemical producers doing enough to highlight the importance of their wares?

I volunteered for a challenge: to nominate a chemical and avoid using, or coming in to contact with, anything it helps to produce for a week. My colleagues kindly offered suggestions, and I even asked the views of the visitors to our new online community forum, ICIS connect.

Being male, some ideas were quickly rejected: cosmetics and nail varnish wouldn't really have posed much of a challenge. Not having children meant superabsorbent polymers, and having to avoid using diapers, would have been too easy. As did cutting out monoethylene glycol (MEG), thanks to the promise of warmer weather - in the UK, would I really need to use antifreeze on my car in May?

Brimming with confidence I decided to aim high, opting for one of the world's most common polymers, ­polypropylene (PP).

Since its development in the 1950s, the market for the thermoplastic has expanded rapidly. Global consultancy CMAI predicts global growth of 6%/year from 2007-2012.

Versatility and low cost have made polypropylene a firm favorite. Tough, durable and heat-resistant, it is ideal for product substitution. Among its many uses, it is the perfect replacement for materials such as polystyrene (PS), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), high density polyethylene (HDPE) polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polycarbonate (PC).

I knew my task would be tough - and doomed to failure. Blame my editor. He rejected my attempts to avoid using my polypropylene-filled computer for a week. And living 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the office meant that I also had to concede that using my car - crammed with PP in the dash, fenders, and under the hood - was inevitable. Otherwise, I was fairly optimistic.


I get up a little later than usual as I can't rely on my stereo alarm to wake me: polypropylene is used to make the speakers, apparently. Not a good start.

Off to the shower. Washing proves a bit of a problem too. A quick glance at the base of the shampoo, shower gel and deodorant containers and the letters PP stare back at me I decide instead to rely on old-fashioned soap.

My toothbrush provides the next hurdle, but I quickly realize that I can't technically remove my toothpaste lid, the cap of the mouthwash or touch the dental floss packaging either. This does seem a little unfair to my workmates, however, so I instead decide to chalk up another failure and use them anyway.

Work isn't too bad task-wise and, except for having to rely on pencils rather than pens, my day isn't too different.

Drinking coffee from a mug instead of a disposable cup isn't a big deal, and cutting back on the PP-wrapped snacks such as sweets and biscuits is probably doing me a world of good.

Back home at the end of the day, my wife laughs of my "I can't [use the washing machine/refrigerator] because of work" excuse. Nevertheless, I persist and manage to avoid the mixing bowls, spoons, margarine tubs and food packaging. A good result all round!


Manage to bypass the toothbrush issue by buying a wooden version. I'd also cleverly left the lid off my toothpaste tube yesterday, instead wrapping the end in cling film to stop the contents going hard. I seem to be getting the hang of this now.

Again, the office poses few problems and I arrive back home feeling pleased with myself, at least until I head to the supermarket for supplies. I've always enjoyed food shopping and browsing the aisles. I must admit to not being the healthiest of people, always opting for the brightly-packaged convenience foods teeming with calories and artificial additives.

As I look up and down the shelves, I notice all my favorite foods are wearing shiny little plastic suits, or sit in a colorful moulded tray. I realize after half an hour of searching, that fruit, vegetables and tinned food are going to be my only vice this week.


I'm still finding it hard to get used to my new diet I thought I was taking the healthy option buying prewashed and sliced bags of fruit until the ICIS pricing plastics editor tells me that the wrapper breaks the rules. Will have to stick with fruit in its original form.

I start to catch up on some chores back at home, but find this somewhat limited too not only am I unable to empty the garbage in to the polypropylene bin outside but I am extremely pleased to discover that the steam iron is also out of bounds.


It's deadline day for the magazine so it is pretty busy. I find that I'm really having to concentrate on the challenge while writing the markets pages as I keep reaching for a pen.

I discover that I own plenty of plastic folders that may be forbidden too - and a plastic-covered notebook, which also looks a little suspicious.

I also realize that I've spent the whole week walking over PP carpets, so that's another failure.


I intend to spend the evening decorating, but think it will have to wait until next week. My brush handles are made of PP, and so is the paint tray. I can't mount my shelves either, thanks to the electric drill and most of my tools.

I'm getting bored with vegetables, and am starting to crave pizza, cheese, butter and coffee. Hungry, I start to get a headache. Unfortunately, the pills are kept in a little plastic pot.


My four-year-old nephew visits today but isn't too happy that I can't play with most of his plastic toys. I can't even keep him occupied with a DVD as the shiny disc is encased in a polypropylene box.

The disappointment doesn't last too long. The sun is shining and it's warm outside so the afternoon is spent relaxing in the garden - friends and family lounging on the plastic patio furniture while I sit, alone, on the lawn. At least I'm unable to do any gardening, thanks to our collection of plastic tools.


The final day of the task is here and it's been tough. I'd never put much thought into what chemicals meant to me before It's certainly opened my eyes.

My inability to go more than an hour without coming into contact with that ubiquitous polyolefin has surprised me.

Although I've made it through an entire week, I've chalked up a number of fails. I challenge anyone to do better.

Why not pick a chemical and take the challenge yourself, even for a day? Let us know how you get on at our new ICIS connect community website.

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