If you've learned to ignore decades of anti-PVC rhetoric, then you'd better start paying attention. Because the arguments against phthalates in toys are resonating in a way that continues to surprise the plastics industry. The latest example was Mattel Inc.'s Dec. 7 announcement that it would seek alternatives to traditional plastic resins. This was another case where science seemed to be in plastics' corner. But critics, and emotion, won the battle nevertheless.
Here's the scenario: Just before Christmas, toy kingpin Mattel announced it wants to replace plastics with organic-based alternatives, possibly as early as 2001.
While Mattel appeared to be shying away from all plastics, its real problem has been with phthalates, which are used to soften some PVC toys.
The phthalates issue has dogged the toy industry for about a year, since ABC News' 20/20 program shined the spotlight on the contentious European debate over the safety of diisononyl phthalate (DINP) in teethers. On the eve of the airing of the program, several large toy makers and retailers announced that they would stop selling the offending products.
Since then, it would appear that the plastics and phthalates industries have made some significant points in the debate. In June, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop pronounced phthalates completely safe in vinyl toys and medical products. And on Dec. 21, a federal panel of scientists reaffirmed the safety of DINP in toys.
But even with the support of all that science, Mattel caved in to critics. What was behind its decision?
First of all, this is a signal that despite winning the scientific debate, phthalates are losing the war. The perception is growing that phthalates are unsafe. Industry simply is having a tough time debating critics who focus on children's safety.
Second, the fact that Mattel plays in a global market is huge. Although consumers in the United States haven't embraced the phthalate safety issue, Mattel is afraid that somewhere, sometime soon, at least some phthalates are going to face a serious legislative ban. Better to prepare now than to be caught flat-footed.
This mess continues to point to the need for industry to do a better job of changing consumer attitudes about plastics. But what's most unnerving about this case is that consumer pressure really had nothing to do with the decision. Mattel made it clear that the pressure was coming from environmental groups and retailers, not the buying public.
In the meantime, it will be interesting to see whether Mattel's suppliers will find grain- or starch-based materials that can meet its price and performance specifications. If they can't, just how will Mattel explain the failure to the tenacious critics of PVC and phthalates?