(May 24, 2004) — When we started publishing in 1989, the big environmental topic in the industry was whether all the plastic out there would clog up landfills and ruin the earth.
Fast forward 15 years, and the big debate is closer to home — will all that plastic out there ruin my health?
Solid waste is still a concern. But it doesn't command public attention the way it did more than a decade ago, in the days of garbage barges and landfill bans of plastic packaging. Even the names of the industry groups back then said a lot about priorities, like the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, which later became the American Plastics Council.
Now, the concerns are much more personal, along the lines of, “How does this chemical exposure affect my health?”
We've seen it in debates about restricting phthalates in baby pacifiers and medical tubing, and whether heavy metals like lead or cadmium should be used in PVC. It's cropped up in an ongoing Environmental Protection Agency study of the health effects of processing agents used to make fluoropolymers, and debates about brominated flame retardants used in the plastic in our computers.
Part of the reason it's coming up more is that we're getting much better at testing for minute amounts of chemicals in our bodies, and for finding their subtle effects. The thing is, though, we don't know nearly as much as we'd like about what it means to find the chemicals floating around inside us.
There are major research initiatives under way to get better answers, including the chemical industry's long-range testing of high-production-volume chemicals, the European Union's REACH proposal and other efforts looking at how children are affected by exposure.
To me, it's related to another trend — sustainable manufacturing.
That's one of those buzz phrases that can make business people scoff. Right now, everyone is focused on just surviving in a tough global economy, and on making businesses leaner and more efficient. The plastics industry lost about 100,000 jobs between 2000 and 2002, according to industry statistics. Sustainability sounds like a topic for a late-night grad-school bull session — interesting to talk about, but what does it really have to do with me?
If you attend environmental conferences, like the Society of Plastics Engineers' recent annual environmental forum in Detroit, you get another perspective.
That event was full of discussions about bio-based plastics, about using corn or soy or other plants as the building blocks of plastics.
Companies like Cargill Dow LLC are making investments, and some speakers said that using biomaterials as a feedstock could offer economic advantages to a North American plastics industry reeling from high natural gas prices.
Industry in other parts of the world is being pressed much more than in the United States on sustainability and chemical health. European governments, for example, pressured the vinyl industry there to make commitments to boost recycling, phase out heavy metals and reduce pollution.
The vinyl industry's last big global powwow, in 2002, featured a lot of talk about sustainability. More people in the world, and more of them wanting a better life, will force sustainability to the front, some speakers said. We can't all consume energy like Americans.
Plastics recycler MBA Polymers Inc. also sees more focus on sustainability in other parts of the world. The Richmond, Calif., company developed a sophisticated process to recycle plastics from used electronic equipment, and was profiled for its technology in Inc. magazine and picked up awards.
But it won't be commercializing its work in the United States, at least initially. It's making its first substantial commercial investment in China, in part because Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are moving more aggressively to recycle the equipment, instead of dumping it into a landfill.
It's also looking for partners in Europe, which faces similar aggressive legislation to recycle computers and electronics.
Both sustainability and chemical health are part of the same push, for an industry with a more environmentally friendly footprint. Both trends can have substantial impact on product design and materials choice.
It's true that these issues may not be front and center in the public mind, but they are cropping up in the news.
In the past two days, for example, I've seen a story in a major newspaper on hospitals in Philadelphia phasing out PVC because of concern about phthalates, and another mainstream press report on cosmetic companies that have decided not to use phthalates because of questions raised about phthalates in plastic toys and medical products.
Of course, looking at the big picture, the environment does not rank as high in public opinion surveys in the United States as the economy or national security. The public has a fair amount of skepticism about environmental scare stories. After all, we didn't run out of landfill space 15 years ago.
The public also has some skepticism about the chemical industry — some of it sensible — which explains why the industry is looking to spend $20 million a year on an image-boosting campaign.
Environmental issues have gotten more complicated. The solid waste concerns that galvanized industry 15 years ago were relatively easy to address, because they didn't resonate as much with people. Not recycling wastes resources and pollutes more. But chemicals that have the potential to make you sick — that's likely to get your attention.
So what does it all mean? Making bold predictions when there are so many unknowns can be ill-advised. Think of Nikita Khrushchev telling the West in 1956, “We will bury you.” (Or, “We will outlive you,” depending on your translation.)
I'm not sure I want to be the Khrushchev of the plastics industry, so I'll back away from any bold predictions. But it's clear that just as the business climate has gotten a lot more complicated and frenetic in the past 15 years, so has the environmental climate.
Toloken is Plastics News' Washington-based staff reporter.