(Nov. 27, 2006) — Fire up the “wayback machine,” Sherman and Peabody! San Francisco's board of supervisors is taking us back to 1987.
And that's not a good thing for conventional plastics companies.
The headline that's taking us back in time is on the story about San Francisco's ban on polystyrene food-service products in restaurants. It's like they've forgotten about all the things we've learned since the Mobro 4000 garbage barge brought the solid waste “crisis” to the front burner of American politics almost two decades ago.
Look at the facts:
* The San Francisco board of supervisors' vote to ban PS was unanimous. (No elected officials spoke up on behalf of industry? It must be popular to be anti-plastics again.)
* The law will require restaurants to use biodegradable or compostable alternatives even if they cost more. (Biodegradables? Don't they remember William Rathje's research on what doesn't happen in landfills? Even hot dogs don't degrade in a modern landfill. Two decades ago, plastic trash bag suppliers got into trouble for marketing their products as biodegradable. What's changed?)
* And supporters are touting this as a way to solve a growing litter problem. (Isn't litter a problem with humans, not materials?)
This is progress?
To be fair, elected leaders in San Francisco, and all of California, are trying very hard to do something about ocean pollution. That's a topic that is rightfully getting a lot of attention these days. Plastics are a key component in what is now called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating mass of trash that is accumulating in the North Pacific subtropical gyre. The patch is a menace to sea life. Some officials in California believe that if more plastic litter would biodegrade, it would help solve the problem.
Today there's a growing trend in many plastics end markets for what people are touting as “green” products. The question is, what's green? Is degradability the answer? Or recycled content? Or a more complicated appraisal that factors in carbon dioxide, energy, solid waste and the difficult-to-define sustainability factor?
Initially, plastics processors and their suppliers will try to define it, and marketers will try to win points with whatever they're handed. Ultimately, the public will decide.
Plastics have a good story to tell when all of the factors are taken into account. But the news from San Francisco is troubling, because no one on the West Coast seems to be paying attention.
A related topic is the debate between some small PET recyclers and Natureworks LLC, the main supplier of corn-based polylactide. The recyclers say a growing number of PLA bottles in the PET recycling stream are a contaminant, and they're asking for a moratorium on further expansion of PLA into water bottles.
On one hand, PLA is riding the sustainability wave. Who is to say that PET — even recycled PET — is environmentally superior to PLA? Shouldn't the decision be up to the free market?
On the other hand, the plastics industry should work hard to avoid problems that threaten the PET recycling stream. PET is a bright spot in the plastics recycling market in North America. Sabotage that, and we open ourselves to all sorts of environmental criticism.