Plastics Not All Bad

I read your article on alternatives to plastics ("Back to Basics," May 6, 2010) with interest. I agree that there are problems with the use of plastics, but like with so many other things in life, plastics have their positive and negative aspects, and one should balance these in making decisions.

Modern electronics are possible because of the use of plastics in constructing circuit cards. While this has given rise to some problems, would we be willing to give up television or Internet? When I was young, milk bottles were made from glass, but such bottles have mostly disappeared because of the advantages provided by plastics in weight savings (leading to less fuel for washing and delivery) and less harm resulting from cuts occurring with breakage (which caused a serious injury to our milkman). Also, it takes much energy to make and recycle glass.

I have a letter from the former Director of Bell Labs commenting on the great economic savings and environmental gain in replacing lead-sheathed phone cables with plastic ones. I recently had a colonoscopy and I am thankful that it was possible to use a flexible plastic catheter for this rather than a rigid glass tube. There is concern about conventional plastics requiring petroleum for manufacture, but this process uses less than 5 percent of the petroleum supply while about 90 percent is used for fuel. The saving of fuel resulting from the weight saved by using plastics as a substitute for metal in vehicles and aircraft more than compensates for the petroleum needed to make the plastics. I do not think it desirable to use degradable plastic since the energy content of the plastics is lost upon degradation.

There is rightful concern about health damage arising from trace material leaching out of plastic used for food containers and bottles. One example is phthalates. I was involved, about 60 years ago, in the introduction of phthalates, which permitted the use of plastic film to avoid water damage to rifles during Pacific landings in World War II. I suspect the lives saved by this were many. My point is that plastics have their place and can help our lives, but they must be used properly.

As one of the founders of the world-renowned polymer program at UMass-Amherst, I became concerned with environmental problems arising from improper disposal. I helped produce a documentary video about this, Troubled Waters, which showed on more than 100 Public Broadcasting System TV stations. It advocated proper disposal procedures, some of which have been adopted (such as recycling soda bottles), without which the problems would be much worse.

It would not be beneficial to go back to glass for food containers, but it is essential that there be education and regulations to assure that [plastic containers] are used properly. We must educate our legislators to do this.

My plea in general is not to encourage an attitude of technology versus the environment. We must learn how to use technology properly to help the environment. As an example, the use of plastic membranes for reverse osmosis can replace boiling as a means for concentrating maple sap for syrup. The same can be used for desalinating seawater to produce fresh water, which is becoming increasingly scarce. This is already being used in regions such as Cape Hatteras and the Near East and on cruise ships, and will be more widely used when technology can reduce costs sufficiently.

Richard S. (Dick) Stein

Goessmann Professor of Chemistry Emeritus

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University of Massachusetts, Amherst