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Degradable Plastics

October 27, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 43

FOR AT LEAST 20 years, I have read discussions and seen reports and advertisements of this or that plastic that can be degraded by air, by sunlight, or by combinations of them. I readily admit that windblown trash is an eyesore and that too much plastic ends up in landfills. The fact is that more than half of what goes into landfills could be used as fuel, plastics included.

What scares me about degradable plastics is that no one seems to be worrying about the degradation products, or at least I see no mention of them. I guess it's assumed that intermediates are harmless. Many substances that are relatively nontoxic can degrade into much more toxic products. Until the fate of degradable plastics has been sorted out and the products identified, I would hate to see them in wide use. Like many other good ideas, the results may not be what we expected.

Most of the stuff that offends people is where it is because, as a nation, we have the habit of using the entire country as our trash basket. Plastic bags, cups, and other containers lying or flying around are like "post turtles" (that is, a turtle on top of a fencepost): They shouldn't be where they are and can't get around to where they should be on their own.

Maybe, just maybe, the answer is to train the litterbugs in our population to respect others and take the extra few seconds to put their waste into a receptacle.

Werner Zimmt
Tucson, Ariz.



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