What the Essential Plastics Coalition got wrong

My letter echoes many of the statements made by Richard Berman, executive director of the Essential Plastics Coalition, in his Perspective column [“It’s time to change the conversation around plastic,” Dec. 12, Page 7].

Mr. Berman claims, “Disinformation is destroying America’s plastics industry, one city at a time.” And his company’s third avenue is “to reframe properly[ing] the problem” is “directly targeting environmentalist disinformation.”

So, kudos to the Essential Plastics Coalition for staking out their territory. But I think the problem isn’t as clear-cut as Mr. Berman claims, essentially saying that environmentalists are ignorant or Luddites and we’re the good guys – think of all the “[p]Rubber gloves, masks and syringes [that] keep our healthcare system running.”

In my half-century in the plastics industry, I’ve learned that you can’t convince “radicals” of their wrongdoing by shouting, which seems to be the tone of Mr. Berman’s diatribe against environmentalists. First, Mr. Berman, you’re yelling at the choir. And secondly, screaming never works.

I have been dealing with the topic of plastic in the environment for some time. First we need to recognize that there are three areas where plastics are recognised: water, land and air. And then we need to understand that there are two general categories of plastics: thermoplastics and thermosets. Each of them contributes differently to plastics in the environment. Another concern is particle size, which is usually categorized as macroparticles (>1000 microns), microns (<100 microns), and nanometers (<0.001 microns, or less than 1/50th of a human hair).

Some environmentalists are fully aware of these fluctuations. Many technical articles dealing with plastic pollution are well researched and well written, but are often limited in scope and thoroughness simply because they are unable to provide adequate amounts for testing and detailed technical information on the nature and content of the plastic particles , which they recover. Unfortunately, the general public and the always hectic media cannot properly assess the limitations of the technical effort. What is needed is a clear understanding of these factors – not in the technical field, but in the media at large.

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Now for some specifics. Any good scientist or engineer would start by asking questions about the way samples are obtained from the environment. Are the particles fished out of the oceans? How was that done specifically? If by net, what was the mesh size and how long were the nets towed and at what speed? Were particles collected near shore, from one of the many eddies, or from estuaries? And how limited are the samples and do they really represent the global problem?

How then were the particles classified? By size or chemical type? Were they made of the usual thermoplastics or others? (River outlets often contain high concentrations of micron-sized tire, cement, and asphalt dust particles.) Have the particles been characterized as fibrous, acicular, or compact in shape? Are the particle edges microscopically smooth or broken? Have they been subjected to standard chemical analysis such as FTIR or Raman spectroscopy? If yes, have additives been identified? Has anyone attempted to replicate particle properties in lab settings? And if the researchers claim that nanoparticles are in the mix, how were they obtained, identified and separated from the others, and how were their size and chemical composition determined?

Of course, the plastics industry needs to realize that just shouting and saying no will not solve the problem. Funding must be offered to researchers in the plastics industry, just as knowledgeable environmentalists must be provided with carefully documented information on the true nature of materials, so that both camps can create a solid technical basis for future collaboration to first clarify to what extent this is the case problem affects marine life, land animals, birds and ourselves and only then seek solutions.

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We must remember that humans are at the bottom of the food chain. What we eat, drink and breathe can cause lasting damage to our inner workings. My miner uncle died of black lung and a submarine relative has mesothelioma because we just had no idea that coal dust and asbestos were dangerous.

I firmly believe that contrary to your third decree – “We tell uncomfortable truths” – we do not do it. Most resin recipes are protected more carefully than the recipe for Coca-Cola. And finally: “Environmentalists hate it.” They don’t hate the truth and would welcome the help of the plastics industry to learn it.

Jim Throne is an expert in thermoforming, rotational molding and other processes and a past winner of the SPE Thermoforming Division’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

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