• Doug Neckers

Worries

Worrying isn’t popular. Nobody likes worry or worries. Mothers have always told their kids, “quit worrying.” Doctors tell us: “worry and stress can make you sick.”


And Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman united a generation with his slogan, “What, me worry?”


There are many kinds of worriers. There are worry avoiders, and those who worship worry so much that when they see a problem they might fix, they are so paralyzed they do nothing except worry.


Then there are those that know there’s no solution save to worry ... so that’s what they do.


But after more than a year of being caught in the grip of this pandemic, there are plenty of reasons other than your health for some to be legitimately worried. Right now you need to be thankful if, for example, your income doesn’t depend on manufacturing cars, or any other complex product. Those who do have to worry about something called the supply chain. We have had an international economy for decades, and thanks to our tariff and public relations wars with the Chinese, the supply of critical raw materials has sometimes been severely interrupted.


Parts our manufacturers need, including crucial semiconductor chips, too often are sitting somewhere overseas. While governments fight, little guys worry -- and rightly so, when their businesses are in peril.


The problem extends to raw materials as well. Suppose you are in the business of assembling baby diapers. Back in the old days, one assembled baby diapers by folding a piece of cloth in the right shape. Then, as long as the cloth was absorbent and you had safety pins (and a baby) you were set.


However, today it isn’t that simple. Today’s diapers are throwaway -- washing those dirty cloth things was no fun. But today’s disposable diapers are a lot more than a mere piece of cloth. The typical diaper has everything– from super absorbents to no-smell deodorants. So suppose you’re the captain of Doug’s Disposable Diaper team. You are able to find everything in the United States you need except superabsorbent materials to keep bottoms dry.


Super absorbents are starches -- potato starch, wood starch, corn starch, to which plastic is attached. It’s not the same as wrapping the starch in plastic wrap because the plastic wrap is modified to love water. But the idea is close. A disposable diaper contains a plastic modified starch. Without it -- no diaper.


Now the last time I was in China, it didn’t appear that disposable baby diapers had penetrated that market. Chinese babies were still equipped with pants with a slit in the seat. If baby needed to go, he or she squatted and went. But for obvious reasons, that has its drawbacks.


There’s no shortage of wood starch, or potato starch, or corn starch that I know of. Nor is there any shortage of the material in which to package the diaper. But it’s a different matter with the raw materials from which one makes the super-absorbents in which to modify the starch. The same raw materials used to make the special kinds of plastics for disposable diapers for adults as well as children are also used to make automobile paints.


Cars have shiny tops, not shiny bottoms but the chemicals to make those that cause shiny, protective paints, can also be used to make plastic modified starches to keep human bottoms dry. Now if the Chinese companies have a choice on where to use those raw materials-- plastics for baby bottoms, or plastic to paint cars, and they don’t need baby bottom covers, what are they going to choose?


You guessed it: Cars win, every time.


Now in America we care a lot about bottoms. But if we’re dependent on Chinese suppliers to get us the plastics to modify starches for diapers, and the Chinese elect to use those raw materials to make paints for cars instead, we’re out of luck. The problem is compounded when you consider that the raw materials to make plastics are petroleum based – they come from Middle East oil. Imagine if a tanker headed for Chinese refineries blocks the Suez Canal for a while and the refineries have to shut down for want of product.


So now you know why the Chinese capture of the raw materials markets is so important, and how interdependent so much of our economy is, and why interruptions in supply chains for one product may be complicating beyond belief for many others. Should one roll out those old cloth diapers yet?


Procter & Gamble may not care. After all, while they do make disposable diapers, they also make the soap you might use to clean cloth ones. A cynic might say that despite market interruptions, the big guys mostly have ways to survive.


But for many small businessmen, supply chain worries are a fact of life. Let’s hope those who make our trade and tariff policies worry a little about them.


Douglas C. Neckers is a retired distinguished research professor and former chair of the Board of Directors at the Robert H. Jackson Center. See his blog 3dscienceblog.com Photo by Maxime Rossignol on Unsplash

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Science in 3D

With Dr. Doug Neckers

Examining the intersections of politics, medicine, and science impacting our nation