Plastics Not All Bad
I read your article on alternatives to plastics ("Back to Basics," May 6, 2010) with interest. I agree that there are problems with the use of plastics, but like with so many other things in life, plastics have their positive and negative aspects, and one should balance these in making decisions.
Modern electronics are possible because of the use of plastics in constructing circuit cards. While this has given rise to some problems, would we be willing to give up television or Internet? When I was young, milk bottles were made from glass, but such bottles have mostly disappeared because of the advantages provided by plastics in weight savings (leading to less fuel for washing and delivery) and less harm resulting from cuts occurring with breakage (which caused a serious injury to our milkman). Also, it takes much energy to make and recycle glass.
I have a letter from the former Director of Bell Labs commenting on the great economic savings and environmental gain in replacing lead-sheathed phone cables with plastic ones. I recently had a colonoscopy and I am thankful that it was possible to use a flexible plastic catheter for this rather than a rigid glass tube. There is concern about conventional plastics requiring petroleum for manufacture, but this process uses less than 5 percent of the petroleum supply while about 90 percent is used for fuel. The saving of fuel resulting from the weight saved by using plastics as a substitute for metal in vehicles and aircraft more than compensates for the petroleum needed to make the plastics. I do not think it desirable to use degradable plastic since the energy content of the plastics is lost upon degradation.
There is rightful concern about health damage arising from trace material leaching out of plastic used for food containers and bottles. One example is phthalates. I was involved, about 60 years ago, in the introduction of phthalates, which permitted the use of plastic film to avoid water damage to rifles during Pacific landings in World War II. I suspect the lives saved by this were many. My point is that plastics have their place and can help our lives, but they must be used properly.
As one of the founders of the world-renowned polymer program at UMass-Amherst, I became concerned with environmental problems arising from improper disposal. I helped produce a documentary video about this, Troubled Waters, which showed on more than 100 Public Broadcasting System TV stations. It advocated proper disposal procedures, some of which have been adopted (such as recycling soda bottles), without which the problems would be much worse.
It would not be beneficial to go back to glass for food containers, but it is essential that there be education and regulations to assure that [plastic containers] are used properly. We must educate our legislators to do this.
My plea in general is not to encourage an attitude of technology versus the environment. We must learn how to use technology properly to help the environment. As an example, the use of plastic membranes for reverse osmosis can replace boiling as a means for concentrating maple sap for syrup. The same can be used for desalinating seawater to produce fresh water, which is becoming increasingly scarce. This is already being used in regions such as Cape Hatteras and the Near East and on cruise ships, and will be more widely used when technology can reduce costs sufficiently.
Richard S. (Dick) Stein
Goessmann Professor of Chemistry Emeritus
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Biomass: Not Clean, Not Green
I read, with great amusement, your "Green Rush" article in the April 29 issue. The Green Communities Act is a wonderful thing and will make our homes more efficient, save us money in the long run and help us use less energy. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno was quoted as saying, "Going green has been one of my administration's hallmarks." If so, then how can Mayor Sarno allow a biomass incinerator within the city limits which will incinerate 75 percent construction and demolition debris (pressure-treated wood, PVC pipe, basically anything that will burn) and 25 percent wood? Greenfield is also planning to build a biomass incinerator and claims that only clean wood will be used. But it will be cooled with waste water pumped five miles from a sewage treatment plant; 700,000 gallons of sewage per day will be vaporized over the town. To add insult to injury, taxpayers are paying not only with their health, but are providing hundreds of millions in subsidies and incentives. The proposed plant in Russell will suck the Westfield River dry. These so-called "green" incinerators burn at about 23 percent efficiency, produce very little electricity and enhance global warming with their CO2 emissions. Biomass is neither green nor clean. We'll cut and burn our forests, empty our rivers and pollute our air so we can be the greenest valley around. This green movement is great, isn't it? We really have lost our minds!
No Arctic Drilling
I have been watching with horror as one of the worst oil spills in American history continues unabated, and millions of gallons of crude oil now threaten our nation's vital Gulf Coast ecosystem. This latest national environmental crisis reaffirms the oil industry's history of consistently underestimating the risks of drilling. And like recent administrations before his, President Obama has chosen to be an enabler of shoddy regulation.
In light of the crisis, President Obama recently called for a timeout on new offshore drilling, but didn't specifically include the Arctic Ocean. Despite the fact that there is no way to clean up a major oil spill amid the Arctic's broken sea ice conditions, exploratory drilling is slated to begin in the Arctic Ocean in less than 60 days.
If the oil industry can't stop a spill in the Gulf of Mexico, surrounded by all of its infrastructure and technology, how will it ever stop one at a harsh and remote site at the top of the world?
Barry De Jasu
Stop Clear Cutting Quabbin
We too often forget that water is a finite resource. That is why it is important that we seek every opportunity to protect our water before it is too late. Growing up in California, I learned the importance of clean water and water conservation. Last weekend's boil water alert in Massachusetts is frightening and illustrates that we are not investing in the infrastructure to protect the drinking water for 2 million people.
Not only is the water delivery infrastructure a danger to water quality; I recently learned that the state has allowed clear cutting [of trees] around the Quabbin reservoir. Clear cutting not only destroys the beauty of the Quabbin, it also removes the trees that act as a filter for the water supply. Right now only 13 percent of our parks and forests are protected from logging. A new plan is being drafted in regards to reducing logging in state forest and parks; unfortunately it does not include watersheds like the area around the Quabbin. It is important that we protect the state's water at the source. I urge the Department of Conservation and Recreation and Governor Patrick to invest in the infrastructure and ban logging in the Quabbin to deliver safe drinking water to the Bay State.