(July 3, 2006) — If you gave a list of plastic products to every city in America, you could probably find someone, somewhere, who would like to ban shrink wrap, or T-shirt bags, or PVC blood bags, or polystyrene coffee cups, or loose-fill packaging. Somewhere, someone would like to ban a plastic product — and sometimes people try.
In San Francisco, they recently succeeded.
Now, we're all for democracy, but we feel that banning a product is a serious step that requires careful and thoughtful consideration. But this most recent ban raises an important question: Who knows more about chemical and product safety, the San Francisco City Council or the Environmental Protection Agency?
That's a serious question. If you don't think so, consider the implications of giving every city in the U.S. the responsibility to decide what chemical products are safe, and what should be banned.
San Francisco recently took some of that responsibility, when its board of supervisors voted to ban polycarbonate baby bottles containing bisphenol A, and PVC baby toys made with select phthalates.
If the plastics industry allows this precedent to stand, tomorrow just about any other product could be banned — with or without a science-based procedure for making the decisions.
First, let's acknowledge that EPA doesn't have a monopoly on being right. The agency takes its share of licks from industry, which feels the sting of some burdensome regulations. And EPA doesn't necessarily have a great reputation among environmentalists either. They feel that, historically, EPA is too slow to act on behalf of the public welfare.
EPA deserves some of this criticism leveled from either side. That's the nature of a bureaucracy.
Still, EPA has a procedure in place for considering scientific evidence before making a decision. It's not perfect, and it's still subject to political and commercial pressure. But it has to be better than leaving the decision in the hands of local elected officials.
When local officials decide, there's too much potential for bad decision making and too many opportunities for mischief. A city might ban a product without solid scientific evidence for example, or to help support a local firm that makes a competing product.
Plus, local bans interfere with local commerce. It's difficult for companies to keep track of what's legal to sell in one Wal-Mart but illegal in the Target just across the city limits. A ban in San Francisco isn't going to put polycarbonate baby bottle manufacturers out of business, but it will make product distribution at the retail level more complicated.
The plastics industry needs to respond to this challenge from San Francisco, of course, and we expect that it will. But there are also important steps that processors should take:
First, get involved in your local community. Make sure you know some people on the city council and that the economic development folks and the mayor know what you do, how many people you employ, and the fact that you're a good corporate citizen. Getting involved pays off.
Second, resist the temptation to engage in intramaterial battles. PVC and PC are on the receiving end this time, but don't bash them if you happen to make products out of polypropylene or polystyrene. Alternatives are fine and should win the day based on price, performance and safety — not innuendo.