Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Response to the NY Times: "Choking the Oceans with Plastic"

The New York Times had an editorial on Monday by Captain Charles S. Moore, a long-time, outspoken advocate for raising awareness of plastic pollution in the ocean gyres. The editorial tells of the plastic pollution that he observed during his latest trip in the Pacific. While I do not doubt the veracity of his anecdotes, Moore uses a small subset of his observations to portray a wholly inaccurate image of what the pollution is like in the gyres in the Pacific and other oceans.

Throughout the editorial, Moore attempts to paint an image that all this pollution is concentrated together in a large mass. The sad reality is the pollution in the gyres is a very dilute soup made up of mostly small pieces of plastic, most less than 2/10th of an inch across. I say sad, as that very dilution is what makes recovery of these plastics impossible. The lack of concentration makes recovery not only economically unfeasible but even more challenging is that any attempt to filter these pieces from the ocean would also result in the removal of plankton and other small forms of sea life, potentially creating a larger problem than that of the plastic itself.

Moore’s imagery is created by using inaccurate words such as “glutinous” to describe the accumulation zones, and by describing a unique large collection of buoys from oyster aquaculture as an “island” that could be walked upon. Were these collections of pollution that large and concentrated, satellite image of these atolls would be readily available. The absence of these photos is proof that such “islands” do not exist in the gyres.

Moore also observed an “enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste since my last trip in 2009.” This finding is inconsistent with a recent study showing that the amount of plastic in the oceans is remaining constant.

Moore also makes a large number of inaccurate statements regarding plastic processing in just a few sentences: “Plastics are a nightmare to recycle. They are very hard to clean. They can melt at low temperatures, so impurities are not vaporized.” Plastics are hardly a nightmare to recycle. The demand for recycled plastics is outstripping the supply resulting in ever increasing prices for them. Recycled plastics are so valuable that their theft is a common occurrence. Indeed, the Los Angeles Police Department has a 5-member task force specializing in just the theft of plastics.

With the exception of agricultural plastics that are heavily soiled, few recyclers complain of dirty, uncleanable plastics. While plastics do melt at temperatures lower than that needed for melting metals, the organics volatiles in the plastics are easily vaporized at the processing temperatures used. This is in fact, not desired as the volatiles can include antioxidants and other chemicals used to protect the plastics from rapid degradation over their lifetime. As they are lost, additional amounts of these additives are needed to replace what was lost.

All of these exaggerations and misstatements of Moore will do nothing to solve to problem of pollution in the ocean and only lead to a loss of credibility. His well-documented biases show a lack of the objectively needed to address the problem in the honest manner. Pushing for more bag bans will not solve the problem.

In the end, the problem will be solved by what was proposed in the closing line of the editorial: We need to “shut off the flow of plastic to the sea”. Finally, that is something we both can agree on.

Previous Years

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Ebola outbreak would be so much worse without plastics

There are a lot of dangerous jobs in the Ebola hot zone right now, but the possible worse job would be that of handling the bodies of those that have just died. Despite the general recommendation to avoid touching people with the disease, these bodies do need to be handled in order to dispose of them without furthering the spread of the disease. And the only safe way to do that is by using plastics and polymeric materials to encase the corpse and protect the workers. A recent Buzzfeed article highlights the dangers faced.

Just looking at the article's photograph shows that the PPE being used is all polymeric. Goggles with elastomeric straps, a Tyvek suit, a mocked up respirator and nitrile gloves are all polymers. The corpses are placed in polyethylene bags. It's hard to imagine how much worse the outbreak would be without all of those polymers.

While single-use plastics are readily picked on by various advocates, their use is seldom challenged is healthcare, and this particular outbreak really emphasizes their need.

Previous Years
August 26, 2011 - Diary of a Summer Intern

August 26, 2010 - Scanning Plastic Films for Defects

August 26, 2010 - Grammar

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why is recycling plastics so confusing?

The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) has a blog called "In the Hopper" which just yesterday had a nice review of the history of the SPI recycling codes, those little symbols with the numbers 1 through 7 and the chasing arrows.
SPI Recycling Codes
The blog also discusses the confusion that the public has over the symbols, something that I have been baffled by in the past.

What always seems to be missing from these discussion about recycling confusion however, is any mention that all plastic recycling is local. Even here in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, two cities that share miles of a common border, there are significant differences between the cities on what can and cannot be recycled. Throw in the several dozen suburbs around the core cities and you have an even bigger patchwork of regulations. That means that if a local TV station says that everyone can recycle polystyrene food containers in their collection bins, they are adding to the confusion. And so when a national site like the Huffington Post gives out one-size-fits-all advice on recycling plastics, it only adds to the confusion.

The message that cannot be repeated enough is that all recycling is local, so check with your city/county to find out what applies to you.

While doing this will clear up the confusion about what can and cannot be recycled, it won't clear up the confusion of this older women who had her own unique interpretion of what the chasing arrows meant. I still get a laugh every time I think about that dinner.

Previous Years
August 20, 2012 - Cleaning Up the Lab

August 20, 2010 - Plastic in the Oceans

August 20, 2010 - Preventing Spam on this Blog

August 20, 2009 - Potpurri

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Death Ray returns to my backyard

Back in February I wrote about the Death Ray that I had in my back yard. This Death Ray is formed from sunlight reflecting off of the curved panes of glass on the south facing windows of the house. Back in February, the curvature concentrated the sunlight enough that it could melt snow, even though the sun was fairly low in the sky and the air temperature was only 10 oF.

6 months later, the Death Ray has returned. Now that the weather here in Minnesota has gone from extremely wet (and cloudy) to extremely dry and sunny, the Death Ray is wreaking havoc on areas in my lawn. Here is picture taken from a similar location to the ones I shot last winter:
This is looking to the west and the sun is off frame to the upper left. The sunlight is coming down from there, reflecting off the windows and hitting the grass. While the overall lawn is not especially green due to the lack of rain, it is scorched in the area encircled in red, and the unusual lines are tipoff to the cause.

In this next photo, the encircled area on the right has a bright caustic in it where the sunlight is concentrated after reflecting off the window:
You can block the sunlight that is directly hitting that area and the caustic is still visible since it is coming from the right while the direct sunlight is coming from the left. The encircled area on the left shows the path that another caustic traced out recently.

Back in February, Chemjobber suggested that I build a snowman in the path of the Death Ray, ala "Goldfinger". While I would love to have the Death Ray eliminate weeds in the yard, that area is devoid of any. Crabgrass and broadleaf weeds are easily eliminated via modern agrochemicals, and the quackgrass invading my yard, for which chemistry has no answer just yet, is well removed from this spot. Maybe some sundried tomatoes? It's a great idea, but there is nothing diabolical about it.

Previous Years
August 19, 2013 - Defects in Crystalline Polymers - Part 1

August 19, 2010 - Updating Your Resume

August 19, 2009 - What I did for my summer vacation

Monday, August 18, 2014

9 Activities that BOTH Academic Researchers and Industrial Researchers Perform

Once again, another tired editorial from another academic editor, which much like a previous editorial from another academic bemoans the difficulties of finding academic peer reviewers for their journals (and grant proposals).

I've suggested in the past that journals branch out to industrial researchers as we not only outnumber academic researchers by a factor likely on the order of 25, but we are still not close to being tapped out. But what is even more maddening about this editorial is that it implies that there are certain things that only academic researchers do and that industrial researchers don't participate in activities at all. That needs correcting. So here is a short list of activities that are undertaken not just by academic researchers, but also industrial researchers.
  1. Write research papers
  2. Review research papers
  3. Attend technical conferences
  4. Present papers and posters at technical conferences
  5. Write grant proposals
  6. Review grant proposals
  7. Teach university classes
  8. Give seminars at universities
  9. Serve as editors for technical journals
Personally speaking, I've written and reviewed research papers, attended technical conferences, presented both posters and papers at technical conferences and written grant proposals (and had them shot down too). I've not done the last 4 items yet, but they are on my bucket list and I would welcome any opportunities when they arise.

So please, enough of the "academics only" attitude. If you can't find peer reviewers or only find ones that are too busy, it's because you are ignoring the great number of industrial researchers out there. Dry your tears, go to your computer and start searching for us. There's this site call LinkedIn...

Previous Years
August 18, 2011 - Names for Biobased Polymers

August 18, 2010

August 18, 2010 - The Wall Street Journal and "Glass Transition"

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Oh Brave New World!

I start a new aspect of my polymer chemistry career today - my first attempt at synthesizing an inorganic polymer. Up till now, acrylates, urethanes, ureas, polyesters (with and without styrene) and countless organic biobased substrates have been my playground. Today however, I need to strike out in a new direction, one where silicon and oxygen will now be the atoms of the polymers backbone. Carbon will still be around, but only as a moiety.

It's pretty exciting, not just because of the new chemistry, but also the chemicals themselves. I will be polymerizing silanes which react rapidly with moisture and many are flammable, all of which is in stark contrast to the organic materials listed above. We conducted our internal hazard review yesterday (more on how that works sometime soon - I promise) and got the green light to proceed.

With apologies to the Bard (The Tempest; Act 5, Scene 1, Lines 181-184)
Oh, wonder!
How many goodly chem'stries are there here!
How beauteous nature is! O brave new world,
That has such pol'mers in’t!

Previous Years
August 14, 2013 - The Pitch Drop Experiment for the Impatient

August 14, 2012 - Polymerizing Antioxidants