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Reactions: Plastics, language barriers, chief technology officer summits, and Newscripts

January 19, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 2


Letters to the editor

Plastics and recycling

The cover of C&EN's Nov. 27, 2023, issue. It shows a tall recycling bin with "PET" written on it and a person at the top of a ladder dumping plastic into it.
Credit: C&EN

Re: “The Truth about Plastics Recycling” (C&EN, Nov. 27, 2023, page 2): At least partially the problem is one of inertia. In my own house, for example, I’m proactive for recycling, but my wife never did anything related to it before and doesn’t want to be bothered with it now.

So to some extent, the problem is one of education. If children are taught the importance of recycling as early as possible, say in their science classes in the lowest grades in school, that could have a double benefit. Ideally they would come home from school and tell their parents, “We learned about recycling in science class today. How come we don’t do any recycling in our house?” That would (hopefully) not only have an immediate benefit but also lay the groundwork for a better attitude toward recycling when they grow up.

The American Chemical Society should work with the educational establishment to introduce age-appropriate recycling information into the school curricula at all levels.

Howard Mark
Suffern, New York

I was underwhelmed with your editorial regarding plastics recycling (C&EN, Nov. 27, 2023, page 2). While I have no argument with your assessment regarding consumer participation in recycling, my hope is the professional chemistry community would be an exception to this behavior and a sponsor for promoting effective plastics recycling.

The role of consumer participation in plastics recycling is primarily to separate recyclable waste materials and place them in recycling bins. This is fairly straightforward and can be easily accomplished by anyone who spends a few minutes reviewing recycling guidelines. Recycling guidelines are readily available on websites of local waste management companies and municipalities.

The most basic rule is to recycle plastic containers and not flexible packaging. For many areas, mixed recyclable materials (paper, glass, metal, plastic) are collected in a single bin.

The type of recyclable plastic can vary by location, although polyethylene terephthalate, high-density polyethylene, and polypropylene are accepted in most areas. The container’s plastic resin is identified by a numeric ID marked on the bottom of each container. I agree this takes a little effort, and some of the plastic ID codes are more difficult to find, but in reality, consumer recycling is not that complex. Any questions with difficult items can be researched and added to one’s future guidance.

Your editorial highlights “difficult”-to-deal-with topics such as knowing what to do with an unmarked plastic container cap, knowing how to handle shampoo or conditioner containers, and finding an outlet for deposit bottle return. I believe the answers to these concerns are not based on “complex and often ambiguous rules for recycling” but can be addressed by readily available and understandable recycling guidelines. Becoming proficient in the consumer’s role in plastics recycling is not rocket science. This is the easiest step in the plastics recycling process but critical to providing consumer-recyclable plastics to the recycling industry.

I suggest the American Chemical Society encourage members to participate in consumer plastics recycling and promote plastics recycling education for affiliates, schools, and community organizations.

I believe this alternative perspective regarding the truth about plastics recycling would provide a more constructive message.

Barry Hostetter
Landenberg, Pennsylvania

The article on polyester recycling was very interesting (C&EN, Nov. 27, 2023, page 20) and a step in the right direction. It is true that we need to up the collection rate, as this article points out.

However, almost 50 years ago, I did pilot-size testing of our equipment to have a market for polyester recycling for our equipment. We were already using our equipment to make the polyester (polyethylene terephthalate) at Bepex.

The test was a failure because the quality that was achieved did not meet the requirement, plus the product was higher in cost than the virgin product. I think from this article, there are some of the same problems.

I suggest a solution to the testing and an aid in marketing! In order to improve, you need a measurement of where you are and where you want to go. You can determine this in US dollars. You then determine how much the recycling is costing. This versus virgin cost, and see what you should charge and where you want to go.

Gordon E. Ettie

The important article “Frustration Finishes Out UN Plastics Meeting” (C&EN, Nov. 27, 2023, page 12) and the associated editorial (page 2) are worthy of comment.

An advocate quoted in Plastics News said, “What we got was everybody trying to negotiate except for a small number of countries, who then blocked progress towards the end, and led to the relative failure that we saw in Nairobi.” Opponents of plastics production caps included Japan, India, Singapore, South Korea, and more than a dozen other countries.Plastics News reports, “Oil-producing nations including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and others announced a coalition to advocate for the benefits of plastics and focus the agreement more around downstream measures like waste management.”

Countries were divided on whether decisions should be based on consensus or by a two-thirds vote. Roughly 60 nations of the High Ambition Coalition want a treaty to be more all encompassing. Two rounds are scheduled in 2024: April in Ottawa, Ontario, and November in South Korea.

The inability to agree on the technical work to be done between the meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, and the one in Ottawa is expected to delay the overall negotiations. With nearly 2,000 diplomats, observers from 170 countries, and a large number of interest groups, progress at weeklong meetings is a challenge, to say the least.

A trillion-dollar global plastics enterprise with millions of workers deserves a careful, science-based treaty process. What does the goal “ending plastics pollution” really mean? If true consensus is not achieved, what will be the value of the treaty? The impact on chemists and chemical engineers is serious. The next article, from Ottawa, needs to be far more than two columns.

Gordon L. Nelson
Melbourne, Florida


Quantum chemistry in Latin languages: A model to generalize?

The first page of an article on language barriers in science. It shows a conceptual illustration of a maze separating two faces, one red and one blue, facing each other.
Credit: C&EN

A thought-provoking article by Krystal Vasquez, “When Language Impedes Science,” outlines obstacles to achieving the full potential of scientists not born into the English language (Nov. 20, 2023, page 16).

To people speaking English as an additional language, the good news is that you are in a good company! Niels Bohr writes to Paul Ehrenfest: “In general, of course, I express myself more freely in English than in German; but when I want to get into a question where the feeling is more subtle, I feel even poorer, if that’s possible, with English than with German.” He continues, “Therefore, although I am glad to be allowed to write to you in English, you must take what I say not as an image (picture) of what I would like to say, but as a picture (tableau) for which I am bound to restrict myself to the limited number of colors afforded by my poor collection of English words.” Isaac Newton wrote his Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica in Latin; Albert Einstein’s 1905 papers and those of Erwin Schrödinger (1926) were in German; Louis Pasteur, Henry-Louis Le Chatelier, and Henri Poincaré published in French.

Languages embody a way of thinking shaped by a culture’s cognitive filter. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that the limits of your language are the limits of your knowledge. Bertrand Russell, introducing the book, says Wittgenstein “compares linguistic expression to projection in geometry,” adding that “a geometrical figure may be projected in many ways: each of these ways corresponds to a different language, but the projective properties of the original figure remain unchanged whichever of these ways may be adopted.”

Theoretical and quantum chemists hold a prestigious annual conference called Quitel/Chitel (inaugurated in 1969 by Bernard Pullman and Fernando Del Rey), short for “Químicos teóricos de expresión/expressaõ Latina” (Spanish/Portuguese), “Chimici teorici di espressione Latina” (Italian), or “Chimistes théoriciens d’expression latine” (French). The 46th edition was held in November 2023 in Montevideo, Uruguay, while the preceding one was in Montreal in 2019 coorganized by the writer. Presentations in Quitel/Chitel are in Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, etc. The intellectual excitement of following a presentation in a (Latin) language that you may not even know, given your familiarity with the topic, is indescribable! Linguistic diversity, as Russell implies it, adds extra dimensions upon which the science can be “projected.” Is this a model for adoption by other branches of chemistry?

Chérif F. Matta
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Chief technology officer summits

I read the Nov. 27, 2023, issue of C&EN. Just some feedback—it would be nice to see more information disseminated regarding the chief technology officer summits (page 28). It just seems like a natural reporting opportunity to me and something deserving much more, in terms of reporting, than has been provided in the pages of C&EN to date. Also, in this climate of virtual meetings being the new norm, I can’t help but wonder how costs incurred to bring all the attendees together were managed and how my American Chemical Society dues went toward covering meeting expenses, if at all. This is just how my brain works, but it brings me back to my point, which is there is an opportunity to demonstrate more value to ACS members, and I just want to raise it up for consideration.

Jim Copenhafer
Crown Point, Indiana



The Newscripts page of the Nov. 20, 2023, issue. One side shows a goalie ready to catch a soccer ball; the other side shows a martini glass next to a coffee cup.
Credit: C&EN

I enjoy C&EN, and I’ve been a faithful reader of the Newscripts page since the Kenneth M. Reese days.

The Nov. 20 Newscripts page (page 40) has two items written by Chris Gorski, both interesting to me. The first one, “Beep-Beep. Flash. Save!” talks about the very fast visual sensing of soccer goalies. This part reminds me of an ice hockey goalkeeper whose fast visual sensing was impressive. Riding on a fast Japanese railway express train, he was able to read a station nameplate his train was just passing in full speed.

Well, that was sometime in 1970 or so. Sorry for my old story, and please keep telling us interesting topics.

Kohtaro Matsuo
Mino City, Japan


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