Clearly, the environmental landscape for plastics at the turn of the millennium is getting greener. Mattel says it wants to move into organic-based plastics and away from nonrenewable, oil-based polymers.
The European Commission has banned phthalates from vinyl chewing toys. Ford and General Motors are making moves to replace PVC in some auto parts, citing performance and recycling issues.
The list goes on: Medical companies like Baxter Healthcare Corp. have made high-profile, albeit fuzzy, announcements about getting rid of vinyl. Coca-Cola Co. has come under fire for using only tiny amounts of recycled PET in its bottles, and several states are looking more seriously at bottle bills or boosting recycled content as a way to beef up stagnant plastics recycling rates.
Holding the line
But will new arguments about endocrine disrupters and renewed vigor in the old debate about recycling issues translate into slower growth for plastics?
"It is hard to put a number on how big a threat it may or may not be," said Ron Yocum, president of the American Plastics Council in Arlington, Va. "One could argue that in the early '90s, when everybody's favorite sport was to kick the plastics industry, there was growth every year."
In the last decade, for example, U.S. plastics use rose dramatically. It went from 49.8 billion pounds in 1989 to, unofficially, 80.8 billion pounds in 1999, according to APC.
At least short-term, plastics sales will not be hurt, Yocum said. APC polling indicates that health and environmental debates surrounding plastics are not "burning issues" with the general public, he said.
"I think this issue will be with us because it's a cash cow for the activists in raising money," Yocum said. "I think what we need to do as an industry — we need to make sure we have science on our side. I think over a period of time we are going to win this."
The European Union's ban on phthalates in some PVC toys is a sign of changing consumer and political attitudes about materials use, said Axel Singhofen, Greenpeace's European Union toxics adviser. In the toy debate, regulators cited the precautionary principle, an idea pushed by environmentalists and finding wider use in some government circles.
"I do think that we will see, in the next few years, more and more of a move toward a materials policy, where people are more aware of what the products they buy are made of," he said. For plastics, that means "unless the plastics industry distances itself and moves out of PVC, it risks the reputation of plastics altogether," Singhofen said.
Regulators are going to start scrutinizing materials choice more closely, rather than rely on an "end of pipe" approach that deals mainly with disposal, he said.
Another significant question mark for plastics in the years ahead will be how the debate turns on endocrine disrupters. In other words, will the initial evidence that some man-made chemicals interfere with human hormone systems raise disturbing questions about some plastics?
Scientists are debating whether bisphenol A, a building block of polycarbonate, interferes with hormones at much lower levels than previously thought. The National Toxicology Program, which is doing a review of phthalate safety, launched a review of that "low-dose theory" in January.
Theo Colburn, the zoologist whose 1996 book Our Stolen Future kick-started the endocrine debate, says there are too many unanswered questions to predict how plastics will weather the debate.
"We know very little about their effects in the womb — that applies to practically every chemical," said Colburn, who directs the wildlife and contaminants program at the World Wildlife Fund's Washington office. "There is absolutely no way to know what is out there, and what is safe and what isn't safe."
The U.S. government and other countries need to complete endocrine disrupter tests to answer those questions, she said.
Colburn said plastics obviously have a great many benefits, and it may be necessary to make only minor changes in materials use to address specific problems.
"We may have to just do things with the populations we are concerned about," Colburn said: young children and fetuses.
Increasingly that's where environmental questions are focusing, whether it is BPA in baby bottles or phthalates in chew toys.
PVC under the gun
Vinyl clearly has borne the brunt, but so far most of the attacks on PVC have focused on relatively small markets, such as teething toys and medical blood bags. Some 63 percent of PVC made in the United States goes into building and construction, a market that has been free of large-scale environmental attacks, said Arlington-based Vinyl Institute spokesman Allen Blakey.
Despite the persistent attacks on PVC, the resin has seen strong growth: In 1995, 12 billion pounds of PVC were sold in the United States. Unofficial 1999 figures are 15.1 billion pounds, a 25 percent increase, APC said.
"I think we are going to look back and only see some very particular and small impacts that the green activists have brought," said D'Lane Wisner, environmental solutions director at Geon Co. of Avon Lake, Ohio.
Wisner did say, however, that there will be markets in the developed world where vinyl will lose share. Vinyl is losing some ground in automotive applications, but that's because newer, better-performing materials are coming along, he said. PVC will grow, especially in the Third World, because of its cost and performance benefits, Wisner said.
The medical market, though, will move away from PVC because of perceptions of health risk, according to Len Czuba, medical market director at Herbst Lazar Bell Inc., a design and development house in Chicago.
"In spite of the fact that we've shown that PVC is safe, I think that companies will capitulate and offer replacement materials to PVC," he said. "That's sort of a 10- to 15-year view."
Recycling and resource conservation issues also are on the rise, with the PET industry seeing the most pressure on topics ranging from declining rates to Coke's use of recycled content.
But Luke Schmidt, president of the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C., said he does not think it will dampen PET's growth, including in beer.
"Long-term, our view would be that as long as industry keeps maintaining support for recycling ... the risk is relatively low," he said. Local governments have decreased their support and education efforts for recycling, he said.
PET has seen "almost straight line growth" from 800 million pounds of bottle-grade resin sold when NAPCOR formed in 1987 to 3 billion pounds in 1998, he said.
Miller Brewing Co., which is testing beer in PET in a dozen markets, considers recyclability a major concern, but "we don't see it as a roadblock," said Scott Bussen, spokesman for the Milwaukee-based brewer.
Miller has made several changes to its bottle design to enhance recyclability, and has promised to use post-consumer content if it does a commercial roll out, Bussen said. But he said consumer commitment to recycling is lagging.
Some local governments, by contrast, are starting to view waste as an unfunded mandate and supporting efforts like the GrassRoots Recycling Network's call for Coke to use recycled PET, said Bill Sheehan, executive director of GRRN. But the concept of producer responsibility GRRN advocates remains relatively little known, he said.
"It's a tidal wave in other countries, but it's in the wilderness here," Sheehan said. "It's probably not going to be seen as a stampede until waste is seen as a crisis or waste is linked closely enough to other issues seen as a crisis, like global warming."