GriffsNotes: How polyethylene won the war

October 29, 2015

Back in the summer of 1940, the Nazis had already occupied France and Holland, and Great Britain was next on their list. It wouldn't be so easy—the last time anybody successfully invaded Britain was in 1066—so they started bombing the military facilities and parts of the cities. The British fought back. Outnumbered in planes and pilots (the average pilot age was 20), they kept resisting in the air and from the ground with anti-aircraft guns. They also kept building new fighter planes. By October, they had as many planes as the Germans, who gave up their invasion plan and stopped bombing.

radarSo how, do you ask, does polyethylene (PE) have anything to do with this? The answer is radar. The scientists knew all about it, but the signal could not be reliably transmitted to screens with the then-used insulating materials. The British, however, had found out only a few years earlier that super-high pressure could cause ethylene to polymerize and that the insulating properties of PE at radar frequencies were far superior to anything else known. So, PE-insulated wires were used and made radar operational. Thus, the British could see well in advance when the Germans headed westward into the wind in their heavily-loaded propeller-driven planes, and could deploy their much-faster fighter planes wherever they were needed to intercept the bombers and minimize their destruction.

I tell this story when I hear negative comments about plastics, and especially about PE plastic bags, to remind the fearful that PE has done some neat things in the past. But, to my initial surprise, I found that many people didn't want to hear this. They will credit the pilots, the builders of new fighters, the anti-aircraft gunners—all of whom deserve all the credit they get—but they don't want to admit that plastics played such a prominent and maybe critical role. They are afraid of anything that sounds chemical, especially when produced by Big Corporations, and all the stories in the world won't break that fear. For many, that's because the fear of chemistry is a form of anxiety toward all science—the denial of climate change is one current example.

Before we jump too quickly to science's defense, we must remember that science (at our level) says that there is no magic, and nothing that is impossible can happen. Mystery (I don't know) is OK, but magic (I can't know) is not. That's a scary thought to some degree to everyone, as we use belief in unprovable ideas to motivate, amuse, comfort and mask reality, and thus we stay sane and functional.

So when we defend plastics on environmental grounds—lightweight, sanitary, waterproof, low cost and nontoxic (none of them)—we might also remember that there are good psychological reasons why so many people think otherwise. As a scientist devoted to truth, wherever the chips fall, I have no choice but to believe what I see and not vice versa. But when others berate us for destroying the earth and poisoning our bodies, sometimes I just keep quiet, as I can see a little of where they are coming from.

Allan Griff is a veteran extrusion engineer. He started out in tech service for a major resin supplier, and has been working on his own now for many years as a consultant, expert witness in law cases, and especially as an educator via webinars and seminars, both public and in-house. Griff wrote the first practical extrusion book in the 1960s, as well as the Plastics Extrusion Operating Manual, which has been updated almost every year and is available in Spanish and French as well as English. You can find out more on his website,, or via email at [email protected].

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