Plastics technology: We have the science, but does anyone care?

September 06, 2018

I don't careScience “does not resonate with mainstream America, or for that matter, much of the world,” commented Bill Carteaux, President and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS; Washington, DC), and he has proof. “We [at PLASTICS] have spent thousands of dollars on public opinion research over the past two years. The messages that we, as the industry, think will resonate, do not,” said Carteaux. Put another way, anti-plastics hype travels half-way around the world before science-based facts get a chance to put their pants on. That’s hard for most of us in this industry to swallow, given that polymers are built on science.

Sometimes it feels like I’m living in the Middle Ages, when people believed in magic, astrology and alchemy, and that the Earth was the center of the universe. Isaac Newton developed theories of gravity, the laws of motion, space and time, which he detailed in his 1670 book Principia. The Enlightenment arose and Newtonian science marked a turning point away from religious and superstitious beliefs as explanations for phenomena.

Einstein couldn’t abide the idea of “action at a distance,” which he termed “spooky,” but Newton’s mechanics also denied this. What moved objects in space? If space was a vacuum in which nothing existed, how did light and electric and magnetic fields move across space? Well, there was the theory of ether proposed by the Greeks—they believed it was “a medium subtler than air” that filled all of space. In fact, Einstein’s theory of relativity turned Newtonian science on its head and opened up a whole new world for scientists. 

Today we know that space is filled with something, and scientists believe that something to be dark energy and dark matter, which comprise most of space—96% of it! Gravity continues to be a mystery and quantum physicists are now looking at “quantum gravity” to see why that force is so weak. Einstein doubted the whole “quantum” thing. But he did concede one idea: “The science is never settled.”

Science fact and fiction

It would certainly appear that the science of plastics is not settled, either, even among relatively intelligent people for whom science has been a way of life for the entire 20th century. With the exception of flat earthers, I doubt that many people continue to believe in a geocentric universe. And yet, no matter how many scientific studies are performed on plastic materials and their applications to prove their safety and benefits to humankind, many people just won’t buy it. 

For example, countless studies have shown that plastics are superior to alternative materials when you take into account the entire life cycle of extracting the raw materials (oil and natural gas), processing them into polymers and then processing those polymers into strong, durable products that offer health benefits in medical technology and food and beverage packaging applications.

In the May 5, 2018, issue of Forbes, Geoffrey Kabat, an epidemiologist and a contributor to the Science & Technology section, wrote an interesting commentary, “Sorting Out Which side to Believe in an Era of Alternative Facts.” He cited surgeon and writer Atul Gawande, who gave the keynote address at the Sackler Science Communication Symposium sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC.  

“Gawande opened by giving several definitions of science that emphasized what an unusual and delicate balance science represents. . . . Having a scientific understanding of the world is really about helping people to understand how you judge which information to trust, while understanding that the scientific mindset is one where you never have complete trust.

“He went on to describe the increasing prevalence of mistrust of science over the past four decades, citing the examples of vaccines, gun ownership and climate change.” And Gawande acknowledged that, in fact, much of what had been published is wrong and that the scientific consensus can be wrong, wrote Kabat.

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