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Plasticity Forum Misses The Point

Valued Contributor III
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C&EN recently published a business article about the 2nd Annual Plasticity Forum, which took place in Hong Kong, June 2013. The forum was convened to address the growing problems of plastic waste that accumulates in the environment. Plastic bags, bottles, and other single-use consumer materials accumulate in the environment, hurting wildlife and clogging waterways. The forum addressed ways to re-capture and recycle the debris.

Al Matlack,currently an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware appreciates the push for recycling, but has an issue with complete reliance on this approach. Dr. Matlack became an advocate of “green chemistry” after decades as a professional research chemist at the chemical company Hercules Inc. In 1994, He retired from industry and began teaching for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware. He is an active conservationist, longtime president of the Society of Natural History of Delaware, and won the Delaware Audubon’s Conservation Award in 2003.

He wrote a letter to the C&EN, which they printed in their August 19, 2013 issue. Dr. Matlack expanded upon his viewpoint for The Nexus. Here are some of Dr. Matlack’s thoughts on the subject:

“The business article [and the forum’s focus] on plastic waste misses a big part of the problem: our addiction to single-use throwaway items!

    • Recycling of plastics is largely a failure, with a rate of 9% for high density polyethylene, 16% for poly(ethylene terephthalate), 4% for plastic bags. Other plastics in the single stream system, such as LDPE and polystyrene are not recycled at all. The recycling of aluminum cans is only 54%.
    • Refillable beverage containers save money and materials. Single use throwaway items should be banned or taxed to encourage a shift back to reusables. There are examples of this approach working.
    • Ireland achieved a 90% reduction on the use of plastic grocery bags by putting a tax on them.  
    • A system in the Netherlands monitors, by gas chromatography, the headspace in returned water bottles. If anything unusual is found, an air jet blows the bottle off of the line. Bottles that pass the test are reused.
    • General Electric marketed bisphenol polycarbonate returnable bottles for orange juice that averaged 25 trips and half pint containers for milk that averaged 100 trips. After this, the containers were made into crates to carry new bottles. Customers who brought in a used container received a discount on a new one. Although this polymer is no longer accepted for use, Eastman Chemical's copolyester Tritan replacement could be used in the same way.
    • Bottled water is a waste of materials, energy and dollars. Some cities, including San Francisco, have banned it already.
    • Interface Co. of Georgia rents and maintains carpet so that when it needs to be replaced, it knows what it is getting back and can hydrolyze it, purify it and make new Nylon 6 from it.

Too many consumer goods are over-packaged. Bread in plastic film are put into another layer of plastic film with the store's brand on it. Perhaps a printed store label can be put on the first layer. Is shiny cellophane necessary as an over wrap? Some stores sell items in bulk. If you bring in your own container, you can refill it with milk or juices at a tap. I keep and reuse the thin plastic bags in the farmers market. It might be possible to have a vending machine at [store] entrances selling ten bags for $1.00 to discourage too much use.  

The fast food restaurant could put in a dishwashing system and use china plates and cups. Takeout orders could use paper plates with an extra fee. International agreements are needed to prevent dumping of waste from ships.”

Matlack also points out that the 20th century progress toward cheap goods and convenience has become a detriment to the environment. He suggests that a look to the past for some ideas on conservation might be in order:

“Fifty years ago, Coke came in a 6 oz returnable bottle. Today, 28 oz [plastic throwaway bottle] is more common. Egg cartons used to be made of paper. Consider paper wherever plastic is used now. Shredded or crumpled paper can be used to replace polystyrene peanuts for shipping.

When an appliance broke, you found a repair shop to fix it. Today, it is cheaper to junk it [creating more plastic, metal, and chemical trash] and buy a new one.”

In some places this trend is already on its way.  There are now Repair Cafes around Europe and North America where they show you how to fix broken items or do it for you if you can't.

Either way, Dr. Matlack reiterates the basis of green chemistry, which is the fact that the best way to reduce waste is by not creating it.

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