Last month’s Big Blackout is still very much on my mind, not least because as I write this, my office still struggles without telephone, e-mail, or internet service.

Last month’s Big Blackout is still very much on my mind, not least because as I write this, my office still struggles without telephone, e-mail, or internet service. Although the Blackout is not really a plastics story, it has something in common with two other stories that have been on my mind. All of them involve the need to make difficult choices between what we want and what we might have to sacrifice to get it.

For example, in return for reliable electric power, we may have to pay more and accept the presence of more high-voltage transmission lines in our back yards.

In return for the innumerable benefits we get from plastics, we may have to accept the impossibility of achieving a “chemical-free” world. A case in point is the recent flap over PFOA, a fluorinated chemical that is said to be essential for producing fluoropolymers. These polymers do more than make non-stick cooking pans—they perform essential functions in defense, aerospace, telecommunications, semiconductors, automotive, energy, construction, and other industries. However, trace levels of PFOA have been detected in random blood samples of the U.S. population. Although no adverse health effects have been reported, an environmental group has sought to ban PFOA. Fortunately, this may not be an either/or case. The industry has jumped on the issue with its own plans for dramatically reducing PFOA emissions.

In return for the benefits of free trade, we may have to accept a painful ebb and flow of jobs and industries. Free trade gives us affordable footwear, clothing, and electronic gear that is made mostly overseas. But it also brings stiff competition in plastics products, molds, machinery, and other things. The latest example is the influx of inexpensive Chinese plastic bags. Granted, American consumers benefit. But are U.S. film producers suffering unfair competition? Or have the Chinese found a new way to produce high quality at very low cost? Senior Editor Jan Schut went to Shanghai to find out. We’ll report what she learned next month.