Plastics and Society
Plastics, more technically referred to as polymers, are a class of materials that can be engineered to assume a broad range of physical properties. Commercial plastics play a leading role in many sectors, from medicine to energy, because the low cost, ease of processing, and customizability are attractive. Most consumer plastics are synthesized using petrochemicals, and even those that do not directly derive from petroleum (like polylactic acid, so-called “corn” plastic), may rely upon petroleum-intensive farming practices. Although recycling keeps billions of tons of plastic out of the landfill each year, plastics are fundamentally difficult to recycle because they must be separated by chemical species. The ethics of manufacturing plastics on a large scale is a philosophical question, given commercial realities, so it is the job of today’s polymer physicists to direct the course of research towards increasingly sustainable materials and practices. Advances in polymer-based solar cells, transistors, batteries, and supercapacitors have the potential to level the technological playing field across economic barriers, and probably represent the best possible use of petroleum resources.