Tuesday, May 21, 2019

EnviroStewardship: Just One Word. Polyethyleneterephalates

It's that time of the month again! Here's the column my dad, John Berge, writes on environmental stewardship for his church's monthly newsletter.

Plastics have been much in the news over recent years, generally in a negative way. Huge areas of the oceans are covered with waste plastics. Canada rightfully complains of the plastic trash washed down from the Great Lakes through “their” St. Lawrence River. New plastic bottles are being made from recycled plastics picked up on the resort beaches of Mexico. Micro-plastic beads from cosmetic products are washed into the lakes and eaten by fish which in turn are eaten by us, where they may or may not get past the lining of our intestines.

But first some definitions: Plastic, as an adjective, describes a material that can be molded or shaped into a desired form. Plastics, as a noun, refers to synthetic (man-made) polymers (long chains of the same small monomers, or groups of atoms) such as polyethylene, polyethyleneterephalate, polystyrene, or polyvinyl chloride. These are molded or extruded to form such varied products as automobile parts, toothbrush handles, vanes on wind turbines, communion cups, fibers, films and the ubiquitous, obnoxious, single-use bottles and bags polluting the environment.

Before I go any further, I must confess to being one of those people who helped push plastics onto the scene. Years ago, I worked in a huge nylon plant and was one of the first dozen technical people on the development of Dacron® (that polysyllabic plastic above); you may be wearing one or the other of these synthetic “plastic” fibers or walking on them in your home or office. I also did some research on the fibers that are used in bullet-proof vests protecting our police and armed forces. My doctoral research was on the dynamic mechanical properties of long side-chain methacrylate polymers (non-commercialized plastics). I did turn down a job offer to do research on the manufacture of plastic bags, but that was for other reasons.

For convenience and sanitation, our church lines its waste baskets and bins with single-use plastic bags, including the bin for the recycling of the single-use polystyrene communion cups. These bags do get a second usage in our kitchen waste basket. I have recently picked up some “Compostable Kitchen Bags” for the recycling bin, but they only claim “100% certified compostable … in municipal or commercial compost facilities.” I have faith that they will also compost eventually in the landfill after our two usages.

I also have faith that, after this and earlier discussions in these essays, our congregation and every member will try their best to differentiate in their purchase, use and disposal practices between single-use plastic items and those products which in the long run are beneficial because of their light weight, long-term stability and other properties.

Reusable items such as tote bags for groceries and refillable water or coffee containers are much preferable to single-use items, even if you are careful to recycle the latter. Lighter weight plastics allow for larger wind turbine blades and thus can provide more renewable energy; they also yield lighter, more fuel-efficient automobiles. Even foamed plastics around our homes can improve insulation and reduce energy needs. Replacing lead pipes with PVC can protect our children and improve our health.

Good environmental stewardship requires some forethought before plastic items are purchased, disposed or recycled.

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