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I've got good news, and I've got bad news... which do you want first?

By: Don Loepp

March 4, 2014

Plastics are the topic this week of some high-profile stories in the mainstream media. The topics: chemical safety and durable goods recycling.

Mother Jones tackled chemical safety with a 6,000+-word-story headlined "The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics … And the Big Tobacco-style campaign to bury it."

The story is extensively researched and footnoted, although I would quibble with calling the evidence "new" in the headline.

The story focuses on George Bittner's research on the estrogenic activity of various plastics. I'm sure that many Mother Jones readers aren't aware of his studies, but they've been around for a few years. The New York Times covered the topic in 2011 ("Substitutes for Bisphenol A Could Be More Harmful"), and National Public Radio in 2012 ("Legal Battle Erupts Over Whose Plastic Consumers Should Trust").

In fact, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel blazed this trail back in 2008 with its "Chemical fallout" report, which I covered in the blog at the time.

All interesting reading, and essential information for plastics industry managers.

Mother Jones points out that Bittner has a stake in the question of which plastics are safe (and which are not). He founded an Austin, Texas-based company called Plastipure Inc., which markets plastics that it claims are "significantly safer materials, free of all estrogenic activity."

The story also covers the fact that Eastman Chemical Co. won a federal lawsuit last year against Plastipure. A jury ruled that Plastipure had made misleading statements about Tritan, the resin that Eastman markets as an alternative to polycarbonate (which uses BPA as a feedstock).

Despite the outcome of the case, the Mother Jones story relies extensively on evidence related to the trial. Reporter Mariah Blake took a deep dive into the reports and testimony, and draws a number of conclusions that aren't favorable to the plastics industry.

So why is Mother Jones now covering the story about estrogenic activity of plastics, focusing on some studies that aren't new — and building the case using evidence from a trial that ended 7 months ago with a victory by the big chemical industry?

Blake sums it up here, in a section of the story that explains that Eastman has "launched a PR blitz" assuring the public of Tritan's safety:

"Eastman's offensive is just the latest in a wide-ranging industry campaign to cast doubt on the potential dangers of plastics in food containers, packaging, and toys — a campaign that closely resembles the methods Big Tobacco used to stifle scientific evidence about the dangers of smoking," Blake writes.

"Indeed, in many cases, the plastics and chemical industries have relied on the same scientists and consultants who defended Big Tobacco. These efforts, detailed in internal industry documents revealed during Bittner's legal battle with Eastman, have sown public confusion and stymied US regulation, even as BPA bans have sprung up elsewhere in the world. They have also squelched debate about the safety of plastics more generally. All the while, evidence is mounting that the products so prevalent in our daily lives may be leaching toxic chemicals into our bodies, with consequences affecting not just us, but many generations to come."

So this is a reminder that despite winning a battle in the war over plastics and chemical safety, the plastics industry shouldn't expect the war to be over. This is a debate that has raged for decades, and it's not going to end anytime soon.

High profile for a plastics recycler

The other story I noticed today was from Popular Science. It's headlined "The Garbage Man: Mike Biddle could free the world from having to make new plastic. Forever."

Again, no real new ground here, but I'm always interested in what other media are reporting about plastics. Popular Science devotes lots of space to a profile of Mike Biddle, the founder of durable goods recycler MBA Polymers Inc.

Biddle's taken a very high profile role in global plastics recycling — how many other recyclers have been the subject of a column by Thomas Friedman?

This story ends on a high note for plastics, although it's a little dated: China's Operation Green Fence (remember that? From a year ago?) was promising to clean up plastics recycling and potentially help more sophisticated players like MBA.

How did that turn out, PopSci.com? We're suckers for a happy ending...