Downtime

Plastic, It’s Fantastic

Why so many kids—and grown-ups—have a love affair with lamination.

An animation of a crayon drawing of astronauts being fed through a laminator.
Photo illustration/animation by Slate. Photos by Amazon and Getty Images Plus.

A few years ago, Lisbeth Ljosdal Skreland and Tale Steen-Johnsen, who are professors of education at the University of Agder in Norway, noticed that there was one classroom object that their preschool student-teachers seemed obsessed with: “So many of them during these times were talking about the lamination machine and how happy they were,” Skreland told me. The professors watched the students’ eyes light up when they talked about using the machine to sheathe paper materials in plastic. They had stories about laminating, tales of love but also passionate frustration. The preschoolers themselves seemed just as enthralled. “So many of them are so keen about this lamination machine,” Skreland and Tale Steen-Johnsen observed to each other at the time, bewildered.

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“We thought, ‘Well, this is a phenomenon. We have to study it,’ ” Skreland said. That’s how she and Steen-Johnson wound up publishing an article last year in an academic journal called “The lamination machine and laminating as thing-power in early childhood pedagogical practice.” It reveals, among other things, the subtle influence a technology like lamination can exert over classrooms.

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While Skreland and Steen-Johnson are, to my knowledge, the only people to ever write an academic paper about lamination’s “thing-power,” that power is undeniable. Those Norwegians are far from the only ones who find lamination endlessly, and sometimes oddly, satisfying. I’m right there with them, and walking through the school-supply displays of late summer and early fall, I got to thinking about why. I came across Skreland and Steen-Johnson’s paper as I began to examine a certain subset of people’s sustained fascination around the process—and why flickers of it live on even in an age that is, probably for good reason, increasingly matte.

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Pop culture dictates it takes a certain type of personality to have a thing for lamination. It’s not for nothing that “loving to laminate things” has become a common trait for Type-A sitcom characters like Parks & Recreation’s Leslie Knope and Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Amy Santiago, the latter such a frequent laminator that she occasionally abbreviates it as “lam,” as in, “That’s a nice lam job.”

Not everyone is an Amy Santiago. “You’re either a convert, and you understand the joy of encasing things in plastic forever and ever, or you don’t,” said Meghan Mathis, a former teacher who once celebrated the special bond between teachers and laminators for the website WeAreTeachers, where she is an editor.

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Famous fans of lamination include model and internet personality Chrissy Teigen—who once wrote on Instagram, “BUYING A LAMINATOR IS THE BEST THING TO HAVE EVER HAPPENED TO ME”—and actress and comedian Amy Sedaris, who in 2019 included lamination sheets on a list of things she couldn’t live without: “If people come over, I always offer to laminate something of theirs,” she said.

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Elyse DeLucci, a New York–based stand-up comedian, once sang the praises of lamination at length on her podcast. “I feel so accomplished after I laminate, even if I wasn’t laminating anything of importance,” DeLucci told me. She likes to laminate her daughters’ artwork and, once she thinks she’s gotten them exactly how she wants them, notes for her stand-up sets.

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For DeLucci and others, lamination seems to transport them back to their school days. When you had something laminated, maybe a certificate, “it felt kind of like a step up, like bougier than the average piece of paper,” said Sam Levin, a Vancouverite and former teacher who now works with educational apps.

According to Skreland and Steen-Johnson, lamination was invented in 1936 by an American engineer named William Barrow. “It was part of the plastic revolution,” said Katie Day Good, a professor at Miami University in Ohio who studies educational technology. Originally it was thought that archivists and preservationists might have the most use for it, and they did for a time, until they realized that it was actually a pretty terrible preservation technique for original documents. Meanwhile, Good said lamination caught on in schools because of a larger movement in education in the 20th century: “Going back to the first decades of the 20th century, educators were interested in incorporating new visual media into their lessons,” she said. “The idea was rejecting 19th-century approaches to education, which really emphasized reading and rote learning and recitation and things like that.”

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“There was a time technologically where lamination made it possible for any teacher to create a really nice and durable classroom experience,” said Roberta Lenger Kang, director of the Center for Professional Education of Teachers at Teachers College. Before going into higher education, Kang taught high school English, and she said she noticed this was especially true during those years: “In the ‘90s and early 2000s, there was more of an acknowledgement that your learning environment matters, how your room is organized matters.” Like many schools, the one where Kang worked in early on had an industrial-sized laminator for faculty use. Over the years, these machines have initiated many a teacher into the cult of lamination.

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When Mathis was a student-teacher, “I think that was the first time I was ever shown a laminating machine and told, ‘Go ahead, you can laminate whatever you want.’ That was very exciting,” she said. The most common things to laminate tend to be classroom decorations and resources for students, sometimes called “manipulatives”—things teachers might want to reuse year after year.

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“The big laminator, the school laminator, that was just so satisfying,” Levin recalled. “Because you could feed truly hundreds of pieces of paper into it, and it would really quickly laminate things for you. And let me tell you, the glide of the scissors on lamination when you’re done to cut it off is like the most satisfying thing ever.”

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“You get into a school setting, and everyone’s printing and laminating resources,” said Sarah Weston, a teacher and assistant principal in Australia who goes by @giftedandtalentedteacher on Instagram, where she has 78,000 followers. “There wasn’t any training or anyone who said to me that you had to laminate. It was just the status quo. And it was just how teachers did it.”

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So strong are the pleasures of lamination that some go overboard. Mathis remembered one former colleague: “She was one of those people who could laminate weirdly shaped things,” she said. “But then, she would go too far, and she would laminate, like, file folders, and then they wouldn’t close as well. I’m like, ‘You need to stop.’ I think she would have laminated her house if she could have.”

As for what’s so special about it, I heard a few theories. For Mathis, it’s the forethought lamination shows: “It takes that extra step or two. You can’t have the idea on Sunday night and then have it in your classroom Monday morning. You have to think about it in advance and get it ready in advance.”

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There’s also the importance it confers: “That item represents a moment, it represents a memory and represents a concept that you think matters,” Kang said. “It’s like a time capsule, it’s sort of like freezing something in a moment in time and making something that’s temporary permanent, and that there’s a lot of power in that.”

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Skreland and Steen-Johnson quote a scholar in their paper, Jane Bennett, who uses the word enchantment to discuss people’s relationships with certain technology and machines. “Enchantment has this little idea of magic in it,” Skeland said. “I think that’s what people feel” with lamination, she added. “It changes this boring sheet of paper into something glossy, shiny, beautiful.” It’s like a makeover scene, but for paper.

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One of Skreland’s graduate students told her a story about being a head teacher in a preschool: “She said, ‘I bought a really expensive lamination machine and I had to take it away, and I became the most unpopular leader I have ever known,’ ” Skreland said. “The teachers, without her knowing, they had bought their own lamination machines privately. Because they had to laminate.”

Another grad student used lamination as a form of therapy. According to Skeland, “one of them said that when she was grumpy one day, her colleagues would say, ‘Why don’t you go into the room and laminate something?’ ”

Despite all of this, there are indeed signs of that lamination’s glossiest days are behind it. The advent of smaller, non-industrial-sized laminators for personal use over the past decade or so changed things for teachers, crafters, and other lamination enthusiasts. Suddenly, anyone could have their own laminator, and for much cheaper than the $1,000-plus a big one would set you back.

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“Once I had my own laminating machine, I would laminate a lot,” said Ashleigh Smith, a former teacher in Australia who co-runs a website that provides teacher resources. “I really got into the process of laminating almost everything. And I don’t think I was alone in that.”

Kang, of Teachers College, noticed that the more popular these personal laminators got with teachers, the less likely schools were to invest in the industrial versions. Kang said that her program works with 30 to 40 schools, and she’s seeing large laminators in them less and less. “I would say, especially in the last four years, with COVID, but even going back to the last 10, the access to technology, like iPads or computers in your classroom or smart boards, you’re really taking a lot of those same benefits.” She added, “Lamination is all about taking something that’s easily destroyed and making it making it more durable and more permanent. And there’s a value to that. I think folks have identified that there’s also a value to not having something destroyed, because it doesn’t exist in a in a certain way, it only exists in pixels, so you can’t destroy it.”

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“I think that the current trend in learning is around making something flexible: Google Docs, and shared presentations and interactive apps. It’s in the flexibility that you have customization. And it’s in the customization that you’re looking at targeting kids exactly where they are when they need it,” Kang said.

As sustainability has come to the fore, it’s caused some teachers to reconsider their lamination habits. Though it was once thought to be an eco-friendly practice—if you laminate something, it will last, and you won’t have to waste a bunch of paper reproducing it, the logic goes—more and more, lamination has come to be seen as part of the plastic menace.

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This hit Weston, the Australian teacher and assistant principal, while she was vacationing in New Zealand in January 2020. While visiting a glacier, surrounded by the majesty of nature, she was mentally going over a checklist of classroom prep tasks she had to do back home, including a fair amount of lamination, when it dawned on her: “We’re quite literally wrapping nature in plastic.” She said as much in a video she recorded for her Instagram at the time. “Knowing that that resource that we laminate is going to be on this Earth longer than we are, longer than the kids are going to be, longer than our schools are probably going to stand—yeah—is mind-blowing.” Later in the video, she announced, “I am going to pledge, in 2020, no laminating.”

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Weston updated her followers through the year on her project to laminate less, and then kept going. “Almost three years on, I haven’t laminated a single thing,” she said recently (while acknowledging that dropping lamination completely is not possible for all teachers and students). Others have joined her. Last year, Smith’s website published a list of alternatives to laminating for teachers. Weston doesn’t know how widely the idea’s caught on, but given how ubiquitous reusable water bottles have become in the past few years, in combination with other trends, it seems inevitable that lamination will continue to fade.

I certainly don’t want to further contribute to destroying the planet, but I did want to laminate something of my own in honor of this article, mostly because I couldn’t remember the last time I owned something laminated. The biggest challenge I ran into was deciding what would even make sense to laminate. Not my vaccine card: I wanted to be able to keep adding booster shots. My passwords were in the cloud; so were my photos. So was everything. The things I want to hold onto are basically all digital: Maybe screenshotting is the laminating of our times? I eventually decided, somewhat arbitrarily, to bestow lamination upon a train ticket I saved from a trip I took this summer. It cost $3.37 at Staples. It serves no purpose, really, but here’s where I think lamination might still have a tiny place in the future: When I take it out of my wallet and hold it, it feels really good. You can’t say that about a screenshot.

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