Alaskans who’ve watched the disintegration of a nylon tent pitched too long under an intense, sub-Arctic sun or witnessed a plastic cargo toboggan for their snowmachine or a dogsled destroyed by the sun’s ultraviolet rays ought to be able to empathize with the problem with which some museum curators are now struggling:
How to “save” plastic art.
No matter how most people might think of plastic as “indestructible,” it’s not. It will decay.
Sometimes the process takes longer than humans would prefer, but sometimes it is too fast.
“The variety of plastic objects at risk is dizzying: early radios, avant-garde sculptures, celluloid animation stills from Disney films, David BowSSomie costumes, the first artificial heart. Nearly every museum in the world has plastic items, and even well-cared-for objects can fall apart alarmingly quickly,” Science magazine reported last week.
“We know how to approach the restoration of paintings, books, and materials like wood, metals, and glass,” Anna Laganà, a research specialist at the Getty Conservation InstituteScience’s Sam Kean. “But for plastics, our knowledge is still limited.”
Store your gear
For Alaskans – some of whom seem unaware of the plastic-destroying abilities of ultraviolet rays – the protective solution is easy:
Keep the plastic stuff out of the sun.
“…You shouldn’t set up your tent in your backyard and forget about it, leaving it to bake in the sun all season long,” warns Mountain Safety Research (MSR). “UV rays break down nylon fiber, making it dry and brittle and reducing its tensile strength. When this happens, the fabric can rip at the seams and stress joints. Polyester offers a little more UV resistance over nylon fabrics, but any tent should be stored out of direct sunlight when not in use.”
UV exposure varies seasonally and daily depending on the angle at which the sun hits the earth, the amount of UV-blocking ozone in the upper atmosphere, and cloud cover.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s UV Index for Wednesday, for instance, ranks a cloudy and likely rainy Anchorage at a low level of one which is eight times less than the index for a clearing Seattle.
But Seattle is also four times higher than Tampa, Fla., which scores a two for the day. As a general rule, southern areas get more UV than northern areas, but again there are all those variables, including the ozone layer which sometimes develops “holes” at the poles.
The ozone layer, about nine to 18 miles above the earth’s surface, was thought to be healing at the time after years of decay.
The steady disappearance of ozone in the latter decades of the 20th century led to an international ban on the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons with their high levels of ozone-destroying chlorine and bromine.
The ban came in 1987 and by the start of the new millennium the amount of chlorine and bromine in the atmosphere was in decline. It is now at about 90 percent of its peak, but scientists warned in June that the recovery of the ozone layer is not assured.
“…An evaluation of meteorological data and model-based simulations by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) now indicates, ozone depletion in the Arctic polar vortex could intensify by the end of the century unless global greenhouse gases are rapidly and systematically reduced,” reported Eureka Alert, a science news website.
None of this has much to do with the problems the museums face, but might be worth the attention of Alaska recreationists.
“I remember using a borrowed (dog)sled while handling for a musher in Minnesota, when the dogs jerked to go, I was left standing with an old UHMW handlebar in my hand while my team of dogs went on down the trail,” Cody Strathe wrote in Mushing Magazine in 2013. “Luckily they were slower freight dogs and I was able to catch up. Lesson learned.
“UHMW plastics have come a long ways in the past 30 years. The original plastics used in dogsleds could not handle UV rays and would break down quickly, creating weakening cracks. Handle bars, brushbows and toboggan beds would get weakened and crack due to UV exposure and then would later break on the trail. Newer plastic formulas have been created to survive exposure to UV light, but likely only for a bit longer than the old stuff. It is still a good idea to store your sled out of the intense sun. Especially in the northern latitudes where we get intense sun for long hours during summer. UV not only affects the plastics, but also the wood and finishes of wooden sleds.”
Creation and destruction – life and death -,are the nature of nature on the planet. Long before humans battled their way to the top of the evolutionary pyramid to begin creating and destroying things, nature had been hard at it for millions of years.
And the process continues – see SARS-CoV-2 (whether humans had some role or not, it remains a new creation) – and the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
A geologic event as old as the planet, the magnitude 9.0-9.1 earthquake in Japan and the tidal wave that followed killed nearly 20,000 people and spread destruction from Japan across the North Pacific.
Humans might place these events in purely human-derived categories of good and bad, but nature doesn’t. It justs rolls on with no interest in what we might think or what wonders we might think we have created.
“Deterioration may be chemical, caused by oxidation or hydrolysis, or may be physical, or biological,” the Canadian Conservation Institute notes. “These processes may cause changes in the chemical composition, physical properties, and appearance of these materials. Vapours harmful to other objects may be released, and exudations or accretions may appear on the surfaces of plastic and rubber objects.”
The Institute was talking about museum exhibits and collections, but its observations apply to pretty much everything. At the end of the day, no matter what humans have done to nature, it still rules.
But the first one to outlive it is free to make an argument to the contrary.