Gone are the days when pitched battles were fought over banning plastic. In the past 10 years the industry has seen the end of a recycling crisis that at times threatened plastics' viability in packaging markets, like Suffolk County, N.Y.'s groundbreaking attempt to ban polystyrene and PVC packaging in food stores and restaurants.
Not that plastics aren't without environmental problems today: declining recycling rates, research suggesting plastics leach endocrine disrupters, toy manufacturers and medical device makers shying away from vinyl.
PVC has become the industry's most recent poster child for environmental controversy. In the past few months, Greenpeace has started to win a wider audience in its campaign against vinyl.
``We're kind of like the country singer that's been singing for five or 10 years and we got our first hit in November,'' said Rick Hind, a toxics campaigner in Greenpeace's Washington office. ``Everybody thinks it's an instant breakthrough.''
Toy makers started to phase out vinyl from teethers in November, Shintech Inc. scaled back plans in September for a PVC plant in Louisiana, and Nike said in August it would phase out PVC. European nations again are considering phasing out phthalates, and officials in Kansas are studying vinyl chloride monomer leaching from water pipes, Hind said.
But William Carroll, vice president of chlorovinyl issues for Occidental Chemical Corp. in Dallas, said Greenpeace's years of effort have yielded little.
``They forced people to deselect PVC from teethers — that was the sum total of their three-year effort,'' he said. ``From the point of view of the marketplace, in total, I think we're doing just fine.''
Carroll chairs the operating committee of the Vinyl Institute, part of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
PVC resin production grew an average of 5.9 percent a year between 1987 and 1997, according to SPI. PVC's big markets of pipe, siding and flooring are untouched.
Taken as a whole, industry officials say they are in a much stronger environmental position.
In 1992, for example, industry lobbyists opposed 165 restrictive bills in 33 states, according to the joint state government arm of SPI and the American Plastics Council.
In 1998, that dropped to 80 proposals in 25 states.
``In the last 10 years, I think the really significant battles were keeping the marketplace free for plastics packaging,'' said Roger Bernstein, vice president of SPI/ APC's state unit. ``If we had not been successful, there definitely would have been bans on polystyrene, plastic bags, film packaging and multilayer containers.''
Most of the high-profile state and local packaging initiatives have long since died or been gutted. Suffolk County's ban was repealed, statewide ballot initiatives in Oregon and Massachusetts failed and California's recycled-content law was amended to exempt food packaging.
What turned the corner, Bernstein said, was aggressive and expensive lobbying, the industry's ad campaign and the industry funding for technical-assistance recycling programs, where recycling made economic sense.
The growth of curbside recycling has lessened public concern, and APC's ads have helped reduce the sense of urgency around the issue, said Lance King, spokesman for the Athens, Ga.-based GrassRoots Recycling Network.
But the virgin resin production is increasing 10 times faster than recycling, leading to more waste being sent to landfills, he said.
Luke Schmidt, president of the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C., said PET curbside programs have grown from less than 50 in 1988 to 7,000 now. Environmentalists recognize the PET industry's commitment to recycling, he said.
For industry officials, environmental problems arise in large part because plastic is a relatively new material and remains mysterious to the public.
``We are a material that the average person and the average regulator and the average legislator does not understand,'' said Lew Freeman, vice president of government affairs for SPI.
The solid waste debate is a case in point, he said. Plastics mistakenly were thought to be taking up significant space in landfills, and were thought to be the only material not degrading in garbage dumps, Freeman said.
A better understanding of the industry's economic importance is helping it in environmental debates, Freeman said.
``We think if the government understands the economic value of the industry, it will begin to understand other dimensions.
``It doesn't answer directly the questions about the environment, but it does help them better understand us and help understand that we are not the threat that others see,'' he said.