A Plastic iPad Could Be a Pretty Great Idea—Here's Why

It might not be as green, but at least it would bounce

  • Apple may have planned—and abandoned—a cheap plastic iPad. 
  • Most plastics are less recyclable than aluminum.
  • But plastics have many properties that make them better than aluminum.
iPad with blank screen and Apple Pencil on a wooden table

 Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

Apple may have ditched its plan to make a plastic iPad, but it would actually be a pretty great device. 

Plastic gets a bad rap, and often for a good reason. But it is also superior to metal and glass in many ways. According to a report from the absurdly well-sourced Apple journalist Mark Gurman, Apple was considering a plastic iPad with a matching keyboard for under $500 but abandoned the idea. The draw here, for Apple, was presumably price. But anyone who has suffered a crack in their glass-backed Phone or had an iPhone Pro drag their summer shorts down will know that metals and glass aren't always best. 

"Plastic is much less expensive than metal in most applications but typically needs additives such as fiberglass to be as rigid as metal," Adam Rossi, CEO of plastic and protective materials company TotalShield, told Lifewire via email.

Plastics vs The World

The biggest problem with plastics is that they are made from oil, and once abandoned, they stick around, ruining the ecosystem for millennia. One of aluminum's best features is that it is very easy to recycle, and the recycled material remains at a high enough grade to reuse for the same thing. Apple has reused the shavings from its milled aluminum iPads to build MacBooks Air, for example. Plastic, on the other hand, is downcycled into some other product. Recycled water bottles do not become more water bottles. They may become a rug or a fleece hoody instead. 

Crushed plastic on green gloved hand.

Kriengsak Tarasri / Getty Images

But some plastics are better than others. Polycarbonate, which Apple used to make its plastic iBooks and MacBooks, is one of the better plastics in terms of recycling because—if it is completely pure and not mixed with other plastics—it can be melted down and reused, like aluminum. But polycarbonate has other problems: It contains bisphenol A, aka BPA. It won't harm you unless you use your fictional plastic iPad to cook or store foods, but BPA can leach into the ground if dumped. 

Plastics Have Some Advantages

Materially, however, plastic has several advantages over aluminum and other metals. It's cheaper, for a start. And if you drop it, depending on the plastic used, it will deform, absorbing and/or dissipating shock energy before returning to its original form, perhaps with a few scuffs. 

On the other hand, aluminum will stay deformed and may crack or break. Another advantage of plastic is that it is transparent to radio, which is one of the reasons your iPad has a plastic Apple logo on the back. Glass is also transparent to radio and allows the magnetic rays to pass through from your "wireless" Qi charger to pass through. But glass is also very fragile. 

"Plastic is less susceptible to heat and cold; this allows it to resist damage from external sources and reduce the number of parts you need to repair it. In addition, plastic is easier to work with, which makes it ideal for mass production in factories. This can save time and money when producing new products," Connie Glover, materials expert at educational and office furniture company BFX, told Lifewire via email.

An iPhone with a plastic shell.

Liam Shaw / Unsplash

Then again, metal is better at heat dissipation than plastic, which is essential for a fanless computer. And another potential problem with plastic is that it is not as rigid. Pick up today's MacBook Pro by a corner while it's open, and it remains rigid. Move back in time to those plastic MacBooks, and they would bend like crazy. Part of that was the construction method—they weren't milled from a single block like the unibody aluminum Macs. On the other hand, the current 12.9-inch iPad Pro is also far too easy to bend. Ask me how I know. 

But there is precedent for high-end plastic computers. Lenovo's ThinkPads offer plastic models, for example. But they may also use fiberglass to add stiffness, as Rossi mentions above, which kills the shell's recyclability. Read this Reddit thread on Lenovo's materials to learn way more than you'll ever need to know about that. 

What would be neat is a plastic-backed iPad mini. It would be super light, the small size would mitigate the bendiness problem, and the added durability would be very welcome, making it a lot more throw-around than the current model. Sadly, it doesn't look like we're getting any kind of plastic iPad soon. And that's fine just as long as Apple doesn't decide to add heavy, brittle, thick glass to the back of its iPads as it has with the iPhone.

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