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A matter of life and death

As social distancing will be a fact of life for some time yet, we could all use the opportunity afforded by a boring afternoon in lockdown to get to know one of the materials that will separate us if – sorry – once we are allowed out.

Plexiglass is perhaps better known as Perspex, a widely recognised trade name for acrylic glass. Other trade names include the memorable Crylux, Astariglas and Lucite.* While they may sound like characters in the latest of a loooong line of Marvel movies, like their more widely known superhero, Perspex, they are all simply names for a clear sheet material made of Poly(methyl methacrylate), or PMMA to its friends. Or (C₅O₂H₈)n to its lovers.

I fear I will lose many readers at this point.

Stay with me though, because PMMA is the stuff that makes up most of those plastic screens that are springing up in front of supermarket tills, pharmacy counters and surgery desks. The ungainly ghosts of a Consumer Past, they will for the foreseeable future form a barrier between us Scrooges and the tired souls behind the tills.

Searches on Google for ‘Perspex screens’ are up 1,100% compared to a year ago, as businesses around the world think of ways to reopen while maintaining the safety of their staff and customers. And while plexiglass screens may be unsightly and confrontational, they will be important in containing the transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Playing their silent role in what is clearly a matter of life and death.

PMMA itself is durable, lightweight and can be formed into various shapes. It is easy to wipe down and does not shatter like glass. It’s even biocompatible, something that surgeons in World War Two discovered when pilots whose acrylic windshields had shattered in their faces suffered less than those who were peppered with shards of glass. This, er, compatibility, explains why hard contact lenses were made of PMMA, while cosmetic fillers have called on its molecular charms.

Such will be the adoption of plexiglass as planet Earth is unlocked again that the substance will surely provide future archaeologists with evidence of just how screwed up planet Earth became in the space of a few short — but loooong — months in the year 2020.

A grade 7 plastic that is not biodegradable and hard to recycle, I imagine we will have added a decent layer of PMMA to the Earth’s outer core once all this unpleasantness has ended and it’s been dumped in landfill. Making the lives of the producers of year 3000’s ‘Time Travellers’ TV show that much easier, by providing a visual cue for when the team’s excavations have hit the Perspex Age and will shortly unearth such treasures as fidget spinners and 15-pin iPhone chargers.

(It could have been worse: we could have put enough disinfectant into the earth to form an attributable layer instead, and through its ingestion also wiped out much of the planet. Even as a pandemic ravages the globe, it’s possible to be thankful for small mercies.)

Environmental damage aside, plexiglass is our friend. Don’t believe me? Well, apparently PMMA is also used in the screens of smartphones, tablets and laptops. Yes, the same godammned screens you have been mouthing into over the past months in an attempt to expand your human encounters beyond your household.

So, if in three months’ time the idea of ordering fish and chips from behind plexiglass seems new and strange, remember you’ve been chatting to friends and strangers alike from behind the same material for months now.

It’s the ‘new normal’. Get used to it.

* All trade names are the property of firms you can look up elsewhere, and are referred to here for non-commercial and purely entertaining purposes. Also, I am not a chemist. Feel free to correct any scientific details, but don’t mess with my narrative.

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