(March 22, 2004) — Let's not ban plastics.
Unfortunately, it's not a very catchy rallying cry. But even today, nearly 100 years after the creation of Bakelite, the first real plastic, many people seem to believe the world should turn back the clock to the pre-plastics era.
Every week, it seems, in my search for plastics-related news stories around the globe, I find politicians who want to tax or ban plastics products.
Right now, plastic bags are the biggest target. Even in the African media, where I rarely see any significant plastics stories of any kind, I see news about bag taxes and bans. The trend has washed across Europe and Asia, too, and seems destined for a serious attempt somewhere in North America.
Vinyl siding, plastic pipe, polystyrene clamshells and other food-service items, PVC toys and polycarbonate baby bottles also are or have been under attack in recent years.
Why? There are a variety of reasons. First, taxes mean cash, a word that holds irresistible appeal to politicians. (If you're skeptical, just look at your receipt the next time you check out of a hotel).
Second, to uninformed people, other materials seem better. Plastic is a chemical, plastic is artificial. Paper, on the other hand, is full of wholesome tree-generated goodness. Straight from the forest to your door, yum!
Also, some environmentalists believe reducing plastics consumption is a worthy goal. Suffice it to say these folks are not members of the American Plastics Council.
Health issues play a role in some product bans. From acrylonitrile styrene Coca-Cola bottles to soft teething rings made with phthlate-treated vinyl, once the public is convinced that a plastic product could pose a threat to their well-being, get ready for your market share to shrink — or disappear completely.
Finally, there's the real problem of litter. One recent news report called plastic bags South Africa's national flower, because they are so visible everywhere. Litter certainly is not a modern problem; it's been around since the first hunters and gatherers threw their old stone tools and broken clay pots behind the cave. What's new is the modern response: to ban or tax the offending material. Don't correct the public, blame industry!
As we've reported on various taxes and bans over the years, I've been surprised sometimes at how little some of the main proponents of those anti-plastics efforts seem to know about the products they're trying to destroy, or the industry that creates them. At times, there's a definite “don't confuse me with the facts” attitude that must be absolutely confounding to plastics' proponents.
Still, when faced with a real threat, the plastics industry has reacted to such efforts, and no doubt will again in the future.
You've removed lead and cadmium from your colorants, chlorofluorocarbon blowing agents from your foams, and today you're working on removing certain phthalates from your soft vinyls.
You've spent untold millions on projects to prove that just about any plastic is recyclable, at least in theory. Polystyrene suppliers, for example, claim they spent $85 million through the now-defunct National Polystyrene Recycling Co. to prove the recyclability of some products that the public just can't help but hate: things like clamshells and loose-fill packaging.
We've reported that figure before, but I don't think that even our readers grasp the significance, so I'll repeat it: $85 million. NPRC succeeded in saving those products from being banned, although it undoubtedly wasted a lot of money in the process.
One of my favorite projects was an effort to prove that disposable diapers, of all things, could be recycled. I wrote about this one back in the early days of Plastics News. Let's put it this way: High density polyethylene recycling plants smell like stale milk, and PET recycling plants smell like corn syrup. No one, and I mean no one, would want to live next to a disposable diaper recycling plant.
And face it, what politician would really ban disposable diapers? My wife and I have three kids, and we tried using cloth diapers for about two days. Disposable diapers may be humanity's highest achievement. If they had been banned back in the 1970s, they'd definitely be back on the market by now. It would have been like Prohibition, with smugglers bringing truckloads of illegal Pampers across the border from Canada, or making bootleg Huggies in the hills of Appalachia.
Of course that won't prevent someone, somewhere, from trying again to ban plastic diapers. Will they ever learn?