Tired tech­nol­ogy?

Business Spotlight - - GLOBAL BUSINESS -

Aus dem einst tech­nol­o­gisch fortschrit­tlichen Kun­st­stoff ist längst eine kaum noch zu be­wälti­gende Be­las­tung für die Umwelt gewor­den – eine Chance für Wis­senschaftler, nun ein umweltscho­nen­des Ma­te­rial zu en­twick­eln? Von LUCY SIEGLE Ev­ery­body is moved by the plas­tic pan­demic, but when­ever I bring up the pos­si­bil­ity of us­ing some­thing else, a cho­rus of man­u­fac­tur­ers and re­tail­ers tells me I must not de­mo­nize this “mir­a­cle ma­te­rial”. Af­ter all, it has been in­cluded in heart valves, the cock­pits of Sec­ond World War al­lied bomber air­craft and bul­let­proof vests — and it has en­abled space travel. It is heroic by im­pli­ca­tion. To which I can only re­ply: “Yes, but what about the spork, a sort of spoon, fork and knife combo?” As I watched said sporks roll off the ex­trud­ing ma­chines at a Northamp­ton fac­tory, I was struck by the en­thu­si­asm of the fac­tory boss. He talked of the light­ning speed of pro­duc­tion (al­though he did not men­tion the light­ning speed of dis­posal) and cut­ting-edge R&D. It was as if we were about to wit­ness the next gen­er­a­tion of the Ap­ple Watch rather than a dis­pos­able, cut­lery hy­brid for the “lunch­ables” mar­ket.

It’s pretty clear that plas­tic is a stupid ma­te­rial to pick for ev­ery­day use. First, it doesn’t go any­where. Since plas­tic was com­mer­cial­ized and brought to mar­ket in the 1950s, 8.3 bil­lion tons have been cre­ated. That’s the weight of one bil­lion ele­phants. Ac­cord­ing to a ground­break­ing study pub­lished last year, led by Pro­fes­sor Roland Geyer, just 9 per cent has been re­cy­cled, 12 per cent in­cin­er­ated and 79 per cent has ac­cu­mu­lated in land­fills or the wider en­vi­ron­ment. So that’s the “wor­thy” ar­gu­ment, if you like. But per­haps we should con­cen­trate more on our lack of tech­no­log­i­cal am­bi­tion. Is plas­tic re­ally the best we can do?

Once, per­haps. The great-grand­fa­thers of plas­tic — Alexander Parkes, John Wes­ley Hy­att and Leo Baeke­land — un­der­took thou­sands of dan­ger­ous ex­per­i­ments with com­bustible in­gre­di­ents. This was break­through chem­istry. They moved away from the con­fines of clas­sic or­ganic chem­istry.

For the first time, lim­its weren’t set by us­ing wood from trees or ore dug up from the ground, where the be­hav­iour, amount and struc­ture of the ma­te­rial was al­ready dic­tated. In­stead, chemists were able to al­ter the molec­u­lar chain of plas­tics, giv­ing the ma­te­rial dif­fer­ent prop­er­ties. It could bend, stretch or be­come translu­cent or in­cred­i­bly durable. It put the chemists in con­trol.

This must have re­ally had the wow fac­tor at the time, but now? Is this the ex­tent of our am­bi­tion? Why aren’t we fo­cused on the ma­te­rial that will de­fine us, in a new, post-plas­tics era?

This com­pla­cency is matched by a cu­ri­ous tol­er­ance for re­ally ter­ri­ble de­sign. We all have mul­ti­ple ex­am­ples. My big­gest this year was a BA short-haul flight to Zurich (yes, I know, car­bon emis­sions). The cof­fee was poured in a gi­ant sippy cup, made from mul­ti­ple poly­mers and us­ing a “patent-pend­ing” mesh spout. It was so coun­ter­in­tu­itive and so filled with pos­si­bil­i­ties for caus­ing in­jury that each pas­sen­ger had to be shown how to use it by the air­crew. We landed be­fore my in­struc­tion was com­plete. But my true neme­sis is the shrink-wrapped co­conut. To­day, you’ll find a nextgen­er­a­tion ver­sion in al­most ev­ery su­per­mar­ket in Bri­tain. Not only are they shrink-wrapped, but they are fit­ted with a plas­tic ring pull.

There is plenty to worry about. In the UK, we’re world lead­ers in con­sump­tion of wet wipes (10.8 bil­lion of these plas­tic-based prod­ucts are used ev­ery year) and plas­tic-

“Is plas­tic re­ally the best we can do?”

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