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UT Dallas Chemist On Plastic: Once An ‘Exciting Frontier,’ Now An Environmental Burden

With Starbucks and other companies saying they'll eliminate plastic straws, experts are facing a key question: How much of an impact does plastic have on our environment — and on modern life?

Bruce Novak, the dean of the School of Natural Sciences & Mathematics at the University of Texas at Dallas, has studied plastics, or polymers, for three decades. He says the versatile and ubiquitous material isn't recycled at the rate consumers would expect, or hope.

"I think [it's] heartbreaking to conscientious consumers out there that take the time to clean and dispose of the recycles in a very important way," Novak said.

Interview Highlights: Bruce Novak

On the development of plastic

People have known about naturally occurring polymers for a long time, and when I say polymers I'm talking plastics. But there were very key experiments that were done in about the 1930s and up in through the 1940s developing what became nylons. The real key benchmark for what are commonly called "plastic" materials in today's world are the polyolefins, the polyethylenes, the polypropylenes. Those were created in the mid-1950s in an experimental laboratory and then commercialized very shortly after.

On the downside of recycling 

Here's the dirty little secret about recycling plastics: Of all the the recyclable plastics that are collected, only14 percent are actually put into a recycle stream. The rest are either burned, end up in our environment or in landfills. That is staggering, and I think heartbreaking to conscientious consumers out there that take the time to clean and dispose of the recycles in a very important way.

On plastic being useful and detrimental

I have mixed feelings to be honest with you. I went into polymers in the mid-80s when I was getting my Ph.D. and I was seduced by their wonderful properties and the way that we could make them. It was an exciting frontier. But as I've gotten older and you start to reflect on the world and how we manage our waste, I feel real bad about not necessarily my contributions, but the field in general. I really do need to emphasize the fact that we can do a lot better job recycling.

Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.