Plastics' foes wage campaign on social media battleground

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Chandler Slavin

A July 6 article titled “Seabird study shows spike in plastic ocean litter” describes a University of British Columbia study that examined the stomach contents of beached northern fulmars (seabirds similar to gulls) in an attempt to provide a “snapshot” of plastic ocean litter. Researchers found that 92.5 percent of the birds examined had plastic scraps in their stomachs, demonstrating a “substantial increase in plastic pollution over the past few decades.”

Once while attending a Sustainable Packaging Coalition conference, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on ocean debris. The panel consisted of lead scientists from the Ocean Conservancy, the Sea Education Association, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was during this discussion that I learned about the data on ocean debris, which was in opposition to what I had learned via popular culture and the media. I blogged about the main take-aways, which revolved around the discovery that plastic ocean debris has remained constant in the recent decades, regardless of the substantial increase in production and disposal.

Armed with these insights, I was confused by Plastics News’ article on the UBC study that postulates a correlation between plastic debris in seabird stomachs and an increase of plastic ocean debris. I quickly contacted my friends at the Ocean Conservancy, asking for further clarification about the study’s findings; specifically, that plastic ocean debris has increased in recent decades.

In the abstract of “Plastic Accumulation in the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre” (Science Magazine, September 2010), author Kara Lavender Law, et al. write:

“Plastic marine pollution is a major environmental concern, yet a quantitative description of the scope of the problem in the open ocean is lacking. Here, we present a time series of plastic content at the surface of the western North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea from 1986 to 2008. … Despite a rapid increase in plastic production and disposal during this time period, no trend in plastic concentration was observed in the region of highest accumulation.”

More specifically, the authors explain:

“Although no direct estimates of plastic input to the ocean exist, the increase in global production of plastic materials (fivefold increase from 1976 to 2008) together with the increase in discarded plastic in the U.S. municipal solid waste stream … suggest that the land-based source of plastic into the ocean increased during the study period. Ocean-based sources may have decreased in response to international regulations prohibiting dumping of plastic at sea. …

Industrial resin pellets, the ‘raw material’ of consumer plastic products, are an additional source of plastic to the ocean. In 1991, in response to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study, the plastics industries voluntarily instituted a program to prevent or recapture spilled pellets. Between 1986 and 2008, we observed a statistically significant decrease in the average concentration of resin pellets in the entire region sampled. … This trend suggests that efforts to reduce plastic input at a land-based source may be measurably effective. …

The fate of plastic particles that become dense enough to sink below the sea surface is unknown, and we are unaware of any studies of seafloor microplastics offshore of the continental shelf. However, analysis of particular trap data in the center of the high-plastic region near Bermuda shows no evidence of plastic as a substantial contributor to sinking material at depths of 500-3,200 meters. …

A study of plastic microdebris in waters from the British Isles to Iceland revealed a statistically significant increase in plastic abundance from the 1960s and 1970s to the 1980s and 1990s. However, similar to this study, no significant increase was observed between the later decades despite a large increase in plastic production and disposal.”

Later that day I came across a Twitter feed discouraging “green consumers” from using plastic products because plastics are “cheap, nasty and toxic.” I followed the link to the blog (Natracare Sisters), which articulated the typical anti-plastics pros: that there is a plastic floating island in the Pacific the size of Texas; that when plastics “degrade” they release BPA into the water; that plastics kills animals by choking them or by being ingested; and that plastics must be eradicated from society in order to save the world.

Here we go again, I thought to myself.

I have engaged in many a conversation with friends, peers and colleagues about the environmental and health implications of plastic products. Time and time again I discover that like most of our perceptions, peoples’ understanding of plastics is molded by the social construction of the dominating assumptions of the time; after all, plastics were once seen as man’s triumph over nature.

In 1869 John Wesley Hyatt invented celluloid, a substitute for ivory, in response to the contemporary fear of elephant extinction: “As petroleum came to the relief of the whale, so has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances that are constantly growing scarce” (Susan Freinkel, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story).

I took to my blog. Here is what I wrote.

I think it is important to be transparent with my biases: I represent a plastics manufacturer, so of course I am going to be looking at the tragedy of ocean debris from a different perspective; that is, one that looks to highlight the complexities involved and not scapegoat the problem onto an inanimate object, like plastic bags.

That being said, I am a human, and one who is very emotionally tied to the state of the environment: Like you I hate seeing photos of decaying albatrosses with plastic bits in their bodies; I hate the idea that the chemicals used in some plastics, like flexible PVC, may leach into our bodies and environment and have human health ecological consequences over time; and, I hate that plastics represent both our mastery over nature and our materialistic, disposable culture.

That being said, plastics exist in such prevalence in society because of their versatility and economics; the feedstocks of which are synthesized from “waste” products resulting from the oil refinery process.

But before I get all hot to trot on my plastics crusade, I do want to emphasize that the truth will always trump my predisposition to highlight plastics’ positives. If I genuinely felt that plastics are “cheap, nasty and toxic,” I would find another job. My degree in ethics and social justice has provided me with the tools to analyze all arguments, arriving at a conclusion supported by verifiable facts; consequently, I approach all the plastics hot-button topics, be it material health, ocean debris, non-renewable feedstocks, etc., with the same due diligence and attention to detail I would approach any academic inquiry.

I then describe the findings of the “Plastic Accumulation …” article, concluding with the following:

So what does all this mean?

It means there is no floating plastic island the size of Texas; it means we have limited insight into the amount of plastics in the ocean, how it got there, and where it goes, aside from marine ingestion and the buoyant pieces observed in the studies above.

It means that plastics in the ocean could be in large part the result of plastic dumping at sea, which became illegal in the early 1990s.

It means that the plastics industry has been proactive with this issue, implementing a program that dramatically reduced the amount of plastic pellets observed in the ocean.

And, it means that consumers/ legislators continue to scapegoat irresponsible behavior and policies on the mythical plastic beast, without which most of the conveniences we have come to depend on wouldn’t exist.

My blog post (“Plastics are … ‘cheap, nasty and toxic’ Ha! Investigation into plastic ocean debris”) received the highest traffic has generated to date, speaking to the interest in plastics and the environment. Here are two comments this post received:

* “Plastics are cheap, nasty and toxic, no way of sugar-coating it. Blaming the consumer is a joke. Almost everything you buy is in plastic, and recycling options are a joke. Recycling plastic is not even sustainable. It still causes more pollution to the environment. Plastics especially for packing is 100 percent destructive and unnecessary. We already know ethics is a joke — look at Wall Street. You work for your family’s businesses so I am sure you would look for a new job. You have your own self-serving interest into manipulating people to think that you aren’t peddling shit.”

* “This essay is absolutely fair-minded and insightful, showing a breadth of understanding of the topic. Real solutions can only occur with reality-based conversations such as this, while acknowledging various perspectives. The previous poster would do well to spend some time studying the issue rather than flipping the bird.”

Clearly the jury on plastics and the environment is still out.

However, if we — representatives of the plastics industry — continue to ignore the social-media fervor around plastics, we may find ourselves unable to shift the public discourse, which for all intents and purposes is more contingent on he who shouts the loudest than he who shouts the truth.

Slavin is sustainability coordinator for Dordan Manufacturing Co., a thermoformer of plastics packaging in Woodstock, Ill.