Lodge replies:Richard Neumann stresses a very important environmental concern, one that I noted in my Commentary but could not discuss at length in such a short piece. For more information, I encourage readers to consult the 2016 NSF workshop report Frontiers in Polymer Science and Engineering,1 which places “societal needs” front and center.

Polymeric materials, like most advanced technologies, are accompanied by potential negative consequences associated with misuse. Environmental contamination is certainly topmost among them. In a real sense, we are victims of our success: Hydrocarbon polymers such as polyethylene and polypropylene deliver an amazing array of property combinations and at a remarkably low price; thus they are used in myriad applications, including the tens of millions of tons of packaging used annually. The essentially negligible cost in packaging does not reward proper disposal, while inherent physical and chemical robustness prevent degradation on reasonable time scales.

Neumann chides industry and academia for failing to “come up with an affordable plastic that is sufficiently stable for its purpose yet will biodegrade in a reasonable amount of time.” Today there is no such material; even the most affordable is still significantly more expensive than polyolefins. Our market economy is quite ruthless at suppressing societally desirable innovations that cost even a small amount more, if the cost is borne by the individual consumer but the benefit is shared indirectly and over a longer time span.

In the short and medium terms, therefore, progress in addressing the serious problems associated with disposal of plastics is more likely to come from public-policy initiatives and regulatory action than from laboratory innovation. That said, an increasing number of skilled researchers are tackling the issues, and the subject merits an increasing share of our research investment.

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F. S.
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Frontiers in Polymer Science and Engineering: Report of a 2016 NSF Workshop
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Richard M.
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3.
Timothy
Lodge
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