And On Plastics

Plastics, as a class of material, is a truly exceptional one in that within a short span of less than a single lifetime it has pervaded nearly all aspects of modern life in all parts of the civilized world. Examples of successful replacement of conventional materials by plastics are far too numerous to list. What is important to note, however, is that nearly all of these substitutions survived in the marketplace and often continue to increase their market share in the relevant sectors. These obviously provide good value for the money because successful applications of plastics deliver performance comparable to (or better than) the materials they replaced but at a lower cost. A valid argument might be made that the market "cost" of plastics seriously underestimates the "true" cost, which reflects the use of common resources and externalities associated with their production. The same, however, holds true for competing materials as well. The available (albeit incomplete) data suggest that even a comparison based on the true cost of materials would find plastics to be an exceptional value.

Making plastics, of course, uses fossil fuel resources and invariably creates emissions; using plastics and especially disposing of postconsumer plastic waste has an associated environmental cost. This is by no means a phenomenon unique to plastics. It is common to all manufacturing and service industries. The cost is routinely paid globally, for instance, in using oil for transportation. Transportation is critical for the functioning of society, and the cost indeed is a reasonable and politically acceptable one. The question then is: Do the benefits provided by the use of plastics justify the environmental costs associated with their use?

Perhaps the best strategy in addressing the issue of plastics and the environment is to develop and present to the consuming public a balanced defendable cost-benefit study. Quantifying all the pertinent costs and both direct as well as indirect benefits of any material is not a straightforward undertaking. For instance, the health benefits of clothing, the protective value of surface coatings, the waste prevention by food-packaging plastics, and the quality of life enhancement by numerous plastic medical products need to be counted in a comprehensive assessment. This would avoid the qualitative discussions relating to isolated environmental impacts relating to plastics.

But, continuing improvements by the plastics industry to use less of the resources and to develop lower-polluting technologies are important because of their obvious environmental merit. Also, these efforts communicate the industry position on the environmental stewardship unequivocally to the user community.

The present effort attempts to facilitate this latter process by presenting in a single volume, technical discussions on various aspects of plastics of relevance to the environment. The first section of the book is intended to be an introduction to the key subject matter of plastics and environment, for those needing such an introduction. The second section explores several major applications of plastics with environmental implications: packaging, paints and coatings, textiles, and agricultural film use. The next section explores the behavior of plastics in some of the environments in which they are typically used, such as outdoors, in biotic environments, or in fires. The final section consists of chapters on recycling and thermal treatment of plastics waste.

Anthony L. Andrady

Research Triangle Park, NC

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