For the past few weeks, Chemistry World has been produced under lockdown conditions as the world continues to deal with the extraordinary pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic. I would like to thank all those who participated in the making of the magazine for their resilience, good humor and unwavering professionalism. I never had any doubts that we would make it, but it has been a privilege for me to see my colleagues overcome and overcome the unique challenges of these unprecedented times.
Before this current crisis, we had planned to launch a collection of articles on plastics at the end of April. Omnipresent, with a myriad of applications and a host of amazing properties, plastic has become the material of choice for everything from Frisbees to phones to refrigerators. Plastic is so popular and durable that you can see a shopping bag at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, find microplastics in the snow falling over the Arctic, and detect particles making their way through our digestive systems.
Prime ministers and presidents bow to scientists at press conferences
As Nina Notman and Andy Extance report, science and industry have responded to growing public concerns and changing market forces around plastics. Consumers are more demanding, regulations are stricter, and if you can solve the plastics problem through material recovery, recycling or design, you can access a global marketplace worth billions of dollars.
Of course, chemistry is only part of the solution, and it was also part of the problem. Society, politics and the economy have played a role in accelerating the demand for plastic without thinking about how we manage its supply and its inevitable waste. It takes science along with industry, lawmakers and citizens to make a difference on the scale we need.
It’s easy to see why plastic was one of the main items on our editorial agenda. A combination of public health, widespread concern, economics and political will, not to mention a century of scientific research, has brought the “plastic problem” to the top of the list. Now, for many of the same reasons, the coronavirus pandemic is the new number one priority in the world. We have seen in months what plastic waste took years to achieve: galvanizing society, politics, economics and science around a single global threat. Unlike plastic waste, Covid-19 poses a visceral and urgent threat to life and our way of life, which cannot be ignored. Research funders are raising and using billions of dollars as laboratories around the world work together at breakneck speed to develop a vaccine.
The public is pinning its hopes on researchers, health workers and fruit growers to overcome this crisis.
In a stark refutation of our alleged post-truth era, we see prime ministers and presidents bowing to scientists at press conferences, reporting leading evidence and policies, and an audience pinning their hopes on health worker researchers and fruit growers to help them overcome this crisis. We are faced with what essential work really is and who essential workers really are. I sit here and reflect on the following sentence while somewhere else someone is saving a life, another is working to save thousands of lives and another is comforting someone who has lost a loved one. It is a humbling prospect.
We are already evaluating what we will get from our experience of this period. Will we remember how precious the time we spend with friends and family is? Will we reconsider the way we work and travel? Will we continue to appreciate the people who kept us nourished and healthy? Will we appreciate what we have and show compassion for those who have? Less, will we ever see toilet paper the same way again?
Above all, will we remember that science in partnership with society saved the day when the intensity of the moment passed? Perhaps after Covid-19 we will honor those we call heroes with enduring commitments that reward, recognize and respect their superhuman efforts. I dare not imagine a world in which they hung their cloaks.