Physorg.com: A wood-bacterial hybrid building material that biodegrades. Right off the press release. That’s the problem.

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I noticed this morning, upon glancing through NSF’s science360 ‘News Service’ that aggregates stories including a lot of news releases, a link to an Idaho National Lab press release by Sandra Chung. It describes a method to blend wood with living bacteria. The bugs make a form of plastic called PHA. Not only does some of the plastic mix loose into the material’s recycled cellulosic woody matrix, but the bacteria grow cheaply on waste. Their sturdy plasticky cell walls go into the resulting faux-lumber too.

Interesting, I thought. Clever for sure. Then uh oh. It said one big advantage of the stuff is that if one puts this material in a compost heap it will break right on down. Ditto for landfills, if a little slower.  By contrast it says here and I believe it, conventional wood and petroleum-based plastic composite lumber will just sit there for centuries without rotting (That’s a hint why such boards make good decking).

Hmmm. This is just opinion, but it seems sensible enough to me to be worth raising in a real news story: Shouldn’t one WANT plastics to last near forever in a landfill? It’s a landfill, not a future farm plot where you don’t want the plow to hit a two-by-eight plank. Landfills are places that someday may make a suitable underpinning for other construction, a park, a forest, whatever. There are rocks and old bricks down there doing nothing much, why not plastic too? Especially if a plastic is made in part from petrochemicals, isn’t it better to sequester it for a long time rather than having it rot? That releases its carbon to the air, maybe as methane which is worse in the short run than CO2, accelerating global warming that some of us still believe in as a bad thing no matter what the US Chamber of Commerce says is the really sound science to embrace.

Even if all this product’s plastic is bacterial and its carbon is derived from non-fossil sources, why turn it loose so soon along with all the carbon-rich stuff in the wood portion of the mix? We have a carbon emergency in our air. It’s getting worse all the time. Burying carbon compounds centuries or forever makes sense to me – one might get some marketable carbon credits for it. Biodegradable plastic bags that otherwise would float in the oceans and foul the innards of sea turtles is one thing, but biodegradable plastics in landfills is quite another.

Propelled by hopes of seeing if any journalistic outlets picked this up and how they handled it, a search  for such stories ensued. It turned up essentially zip.

Except for Physorg.com, a tech and science-focussed international outlet based mainly in the UK. It’s “about us” suggests it generates its own copy – 100 or so stories daily –  but all I recall seeing from it while hunting down news stories are verbatim press releases. Here is its version of this story, complete with Ms. Chung’s byline. A tag line at the bottom recognizes the story’s provenance.

That’s good enough for me as an excuse to beef about the trope that biodegradable plastics are necessarily green, eco-friendly, good things.  Press releases are increasingly a form of public communication and news writing.  Physorg.com claims to have significant readership. It is thus a central example of press releases going straight to the public rather than through the mastications of the dwindling gatekeepers of mass media. It is a prime example of this fairly recent rise of public relations writers ability to deliver their versions unfiltered to larger society. Sort of like ad writers.

I’ve no quarrel with how Ms. Chung, a “research communications fellow” which means an intern handled it (she’s a grad of the fine UC Santa Cruz science communications program). Far as I can tell she wrote nothing untrue. She had a job to do and that was to describe this proposed product’s potential, not quarrel when the researchers beamed about its biodegradability.

Independence of thought, including the questioning of sources’ info,  is what journalists (and I include some bloggers in that category) are supposed to do – and does not so often happen when none are in the loop.

For all that, the Idaho Lab’s work on this material remains fascinating. (Now if the lab researchers could come up with a super long lasting wood-plastic composite that is as light and rigid as good construction lumber, that’d be really something. The stuff at the lumber yards now is quite heavy and is so floppy it’s only good as decking or siding screwed into frames made of the real thing – or of metal, concrete, something like that.)

Charlie Petit