My letter addresses many of the statements 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 contends that: "Disinformation is destroying America's plastic industry, one city at a time." And his corporation's third way of "properly refram[ing] the issue" is to "target environmentalists' disinformation directly."
So, a whole bunch of huzzahs to the Essential Plastics Coalition for staking out its territory. But I think the issue is not as clear-cut as Mr. Berman contends, essentially saying environmentalists are ignorant or are Luddites and we're the good guys — just think of all the "[p]lastic gloves, masks and syringes [that] keep our health care system running."
Over my half-century in the plastics industry, I have learned that one cannot convince "radical" people of their errant way by yelling, which seems to be the tone of Mr. Berman's diatribe against environmentalists. First, Mr. Berman, you are yelling at the choir. And second, yelling never works.
I have been studying the issue of plastics in the environment for some time now. First, we must recognize that there are three areas in which plastic materials are recognized: water, land and air. And then we must understand that there are two general categories of plastic: thermoplastics and thermosets. Each of these contributes differently to plastics in the environment. Another issue is particulate size, normally categorized as macroparticles (>1000 microns), micrometers (<100 microns) and nanometers (<0.001 microns or less than 1/50th of a human hair).
Some environmentalists are fully aware of these variations. Many technical articles dealing with plastic pollution are well researched and well written but are often restricted in scope and thoroughness, simply because of their inability to secure adequate quantities for testing and detailed technical information as to the nature and content of the plastic particle they recover. Unfortunately the public at large and the ever-frenetic media cannot put into proper perspective the limited nature of the technical efforts. What is needed is a clear understanding of these factors — not in the technical sphere but in the media at large.
Now to some specifics. Any good scientist or engineer would begin by asking questions that deal with the way samples are obtained from the environment. Are the particles fished from the oceans? Specifically, how was this done? If by net, what was the mesh size, and how long were the nets trawled and at what speed? Were particles obtained near-offshore, from one of the many gyres or at river outlets? And how limited are the samples and do they truly represent the global issue.
Then, how were the particles classified? By size or chemical type? Were they of the common thermoplastics or others? (River outlets often contain high concentrations of micron-sized tire, cement and asphalt dust particles.) Were the particles characterized as fibrous, acicular or compact in shape? Microscopically are the particle edges smooth or fractured? Were they subjected to standard chemical analysis, as FTIR or Raman spectroscopy? If so, were any additives identified? Has anyone tried to replicate the particle characteristics in laboratory environments? And if the researchers claim there are nanoparticles in the mix, how were they obtained, identified and separated from the others, and how were their sizes and chemical compositions determined?
Of course, the plastics industry must realize that simply yelling and naysaying will not solve the issue. Money must be proffered to plastics industry researchers as well as providing knowledgeable environmentalists with carefully documented information as to the true nature of the materials in order for both camps to provide a solid technical base for future cooperative work to first, clarify the degree to which this issue is affecting sea life, land animals, birds and us and only then, to seek solutions.
We need to keep in mind that humans are at the end of the food chain. What we eat, drink and breathe may do long-term damage to our inner workings. My miner uncle died of black lung and a submariner relative has mesothelioma because we simply had no idea that coal dust and asbestos were dangerous.
I truly believe that contrary to your third edict — "We're telling uncomfortable truths" — we are not. Most resin recipes are protected more carefully than the recipe for Coca-Cola. And finally: "Environmentalists hate it." They do not hate the truth and would welcome the plastics industry help in learning it.
Jim Throne is an expert on thermoforming, rotational molding and other processes and a past winner of the SPE thermoforming division's Lifetime Achievement Award.