Polymer Planning – The Responsible Age

Remarks to:

Worshipful Company of Horners

Alderman & Sheriff Professor Michael Mainelli MStJ FCCA FCSI(Hon) FBCS,
Thursday, 1 October 2020, via Zoom

“Polymer Planning – The Responsible Age”

Master, Wardens, Fellow Alderman, Masters of visiting companies, liverymen, ladies and gentlemen:

London is the world’s City for the world’s challenges – a pandemic, inequality, trade wars, or Brexit – the Lord Mayor spoke of the City’s many responses.  With COP26 ahead, I’d like to chat with you a bit more about the environment.

Have you noticed how recycling has changed due to Covid.  Back in 2019 when you met your neighbours at the recycle bin clanking bags of empty wine bottles you nervously said, “Haha, I swear I’m not an alcoholic, I just had a party.”  Today in 2020 you nervously say, “Haha, I swear I didn’t have a party, I’m just an alcoholic.”

You may know I have a technology background in scientific research, ran a chunk of UK government research, and help regulate 3,500 UK laboratories. Technological advance is crucial to saving the environment.  Climate change hogs the environmental stage at the moment, but Horners want to chat about polymers.

As you know, polymer is a generic term for a long molecule with repeating parts; a molecule about 1,000 atoms in length with a high molecular weight.  In Roman times the wonder polymer was a thermoplastic of ß-keratin, an insoluble protein almost identical in composition to hair and nail. I refer of course to tortoise shell.  I have here [shows to camera] a genuine 19th century tortoise shell brush.  The original ‘plastic’. The tortoise shell boom of the 18th and 19th centuries and subsequent price spikes provoked research into other polymers.

Technology has made enormous strides forward in my lifetime.  Take the humble comb.  I can only imagine how dedicated scientists using computational fluid dynamics and aerodynamics redesign the teeth of combs with each receding year to achieve blistering improvements in speed.  Combs were particularly slow in my youth, but now they just speed through my hair [provides scientific verification].

The term ‘polymer’ was coined in 1833 by Berzelius. Braconnot, Schönbein, and others, developed celluloid. In 1843 and 1844 Thomas Hancock and Charles Goodyear received UK and US patents respectively for vulcanizing natural rubber with sulphur and heat. De Chardonnet marketed rayon as a flammable silk substitute. In 1907 Leo Baekeland produced a thermosetting phenol–formaldehyde resin called Bakelite. 

Plastic was exciting and ‘Bakelite’ was cool.  And then came the plastic explosion of World War II with nylon, Kevlar, Teflon.  Plastics were so cool it was the most memorable word in the 1967 film The Graduate.  During covid-19 where would be without PPPE, Plastic Personal Protective Equipment, much supplied by Horners’ Company members.

This potted history reflects the ancient, inventive, and industrial ages of polymers.  As the old joke goes, the past, the present and the future walked into a bar. It was tense! What follows is the Responsible Age.

In 1979 Malden Mills and Patagonia developed synthetic chinchilla, polar fleece.  Many of us were thrilled to find out that fleeces could be made from recycled PET bottles.  10% of litter in the Thames is plastic bottles.  But when fleece goes through the laundry, it generates microplastics that discharge into rivers and oceans and, easily ingested by marine life, enter the food chain. From clothes driers or clothes lines fibres travel long distances to fields where they are ingested by livestock or enter the food supply on produce.

We also loved low density polyethylene shopping bags, then found that they killed marine life.  In 2017, Sir David Attenborough drew global attention to plastic pollution and plastics bans began in earnest.  In 2019 the City of London Corporation moved to eradicate unnecessary single-use plastic waste by Spring 2020.  This very day we see the introduction of a nationwide ban on single use plastics in England.

‘Plastics’ has become a dirty word.  At last year’s Horners’ Banquet people were discussing renaming the British Plastics Federation the British Polymers Federation.  We’ll have to redub The Graduate, “one word Benjamin, polymers”.

But the Responsible Age is not one of running away.  Activism and awareness are not enough.  Complex issues require complex solutions.  For example, an extreme through-life-costing Dutch studied once concluded that you need to use a ceramic mug 1,006 times for it to be environmentally friendlier than using 1,006 styrofoam cups.  No chipped mugs, no dropped mugs in 1,006 uses.

S&P points out that “Unlike other ecologically friendly practices, attempts to eliminate plastics have not been directly helpful to the bottom line of many consumer companies.” In many cases plastic holds environmental advantages over options like paper or glass. The future is one of responsible disposal, intensive recycling, and better decomposition.  In turn, we need to continue research into polymers and polymer substitutes such as natural packaging and bioplastics. 

In my lifetime I’ve seen tobacco move from being emulated in children’s cigarette sweets, to intensive taxation and indoor bans.  Many seek an ultimate ban.  It’s not the same for plastics.  We need to treat plastics perhaps more like a controlled substance, not a banned substance.  The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 led to building regulations recommending asbestos. I used to play with mercury at school.  But we still need asbestos and we still need mercury.  We just need to handle them responsibly.

As a World Trader, you expect me to try and sell you a planet.  Our City deploys science and finance to help make big planetary decisions using the greatest decision-making tool of all, open, competitive markets.  And there will be big economic changes.  For example, in 2013 US drivers drove 4% fewer miles per capita.  That wasn’t because the message of the Sierra Club got through.  It was because petrol prices rose by 32% that year.  Extrapolate that to driving, say, 90% fewer miles.

The plastics industry can thrive in the Responsible Age.  The Responsible Age is one of quality over quantity. The Horners are leaders in this Responsible Age combining commerce and the environment, such the Design Innovation In Plastics Award mentioned by the Lord Mayor, or having Peter Maddox of WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) speaking on the 5th of November at your renowned annual Ralph Anderson lecture.

To close, I thought I’d share with you how dangerous it can be to start telling jokes on a Zoom call.  When you begin everyone laughs, so you keep going.  The laughter continues, so you go further. How they laughed.  You feel great.  Then at the end of the call you notice your microphone is on mute.

Thus, I will be delighted to mute in a second following a toast to “the Worshipful Company of Horners, root and branch, may it flourish for ever”.