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Obama's unnecessary slam against plastics

By: Don Loepp

June 25, 2013

President Obama cited the plastics industry in his big speech on climate change today, but the reference may leave a sour taste in the mouths of some Plastics Blog readers.

Here's the relevant excerpt:

"See, the problem with all these tired excuses for inaction is that it suggests a fundamental lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity. These critics seem to think that when we ask our businesses to innovate and reduce pollution and lead, they can't or they won't do it. They'll just kind of give up and quit. But in America, we know that's not true. Look at our history.

"When we restricted cancer-causing chemicals in plastics and leaded fuel in our cars, it didn't end the plastics industry or the oil industry. American chemists came up with better substitutes. When we phased out CFCs -- the gases that were depleting the ozone layer -- it didn't kill off refrigerators or air-conditioners or deodorant. American workers and businesses figured out how to do it better without harming the environment as much.

"The fuel standards that we put in place just a few years ago didn't cripple automakers. The American auto industry retooled, and today, our automakers are selling the best cars in the world at a faster rate than they have in five years -- with more hybrid, more plug-in, more fuel-efficient cars for everybody to choose from.

"So the point is, if you look at our history, don't bet against American industry. Don't bet against American workers. Don't tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy."

Fair point?

First, let's provide the context. Obama was speaking today at Georgetown University in what the White House billed as a major speech on climate change.

There are plenty of plastics company leaders who have been pushing for action on climate change for a long time -- well over a decade. So it's not like this is an environmentalists vs. plastics issue. (If you don't believe me, check out this 2006 story on Robert Schad, "Environmental causes reignite retired Schad.")

On top of that, what exactly is Obama talking about when he mentions that "we restricted cancer-causing chemicals in plastics"? It's not clear, but apparently it's the Food and Drug Administration's 2012 decision to exclude baby bottles and sippy cups from regulations that permit companies to use bisphenol A in food-contact applications. ("FDA agrees to revise rules on BPA in baby bottles.")

Remember, though, that by that point, all major baby-bottle makers in the U.S. had stopped making bottles from polycarbonate -- three years earlier.

So it seems a bit odd to be taking credit for restricting BPA -- a chemical that's still in plenty of food packaging and other products.

Obama's plastics reference today seems a little out of left field, and any mention of "plastics" and "cancer-causing chemicals" is likely to reinforce a negative image that many consumers have about plastics packaging and food service products.

It was an unhelpful, and unnecessary, slam against plastics.