Sustainable development'' may be the phrase du jour, but the concept itself is no passing fad. For decades to come, society will be coping with climate change and energy scarcity, and the ecological awareness from these global concerns will cause many communities to take action on other environmental issues as well. We're already seeing an upsurge of antiplastics activism. There will be many more attempts to regulate, restrict or just plain ban plastics.
How should we address this situation? For starters, let's stop talking to ourselves. No matter how much we disagree with environmental activists, we ignore them at our peril. Many should be taken seriously. What's more, in an age when anyone can operate a respectable Web site or send out e-mail blasts to thousands of people, even the crazies and the cranks can sway public opinion.
Not long ago, I attended the Plastics News 2007 Executive Forum, which started off with a session on sustainable development. Plastics News could have made the audience feel good with a speaker who preached to the choir. Instead they invited Stephanie Barger, founder and executive director of Earth Resource Foundation, to talk about a program called ``Campaign Against the Plastics Plague.''
It was not music to my ears. In 40 minutes, Barger carried on a helter-skelter review of health and environmental ills attributed to plastics: toxicity, pollution, fossil fuel depletion, municipal solid waste and more. There were charts, graphs and statistics, including a preposterous one that suggests items of plastic debris out number zooplankton six to one in ``some areas'' of the Pacific Ocean.
Barger's last slide said, ``If you're not for Zero Waste, how much waste are you for?'' She made it all seem so simple and reinforced her simple message with pictures of marine animals strangling in plastic film and landscapes covered with plastic litter. Who could be against marine animals? Who could be in favor of litter?
Unless the plastics industry does a better job of reaching out to the public, it cedes the field to activists like Barger.
In my activities as a member of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s executive board, I have become aware of five ways the plastics industry can strengthen its campaign to educate the public about plastics and contribute to effective resolution of environmental issues:
* Accept a degree of responsibility for solving environmental problems. While there is no scientific basis for some of the charges against plastics, clearly our products contribute to municipal waste and litter. The special case of marine litter harming sea creatures is one that SPI regards as particularly grave. Years ago SPI created Operation Clean Sweep to combat marine litter, but much work remains if we are to end its most harmful manifestation - resin pellets lost during shipping and handling.
* Let people know what's positive about plastics. Defensiveness looks like corporate greed in disguise and gets us nowhere. And why should we be defensive? Ask anyone in the health-care field if, like Barger, they would like to rid the world of single-use plastics. How would consumers like it if grocers went back to wrapping meat in butcher paper? The sanitation benefits of plastic food packaging alone are incalculable.
* Find ways to convey the importance of life-cycle assessment. In too many environmental debates, emotion holds sway and analysis is rudimentary. I believe this explains why the city of San Francisco recently banned conventional plastic bags. In any cradle-to-grave assessment, paper bags generate more pollutants than plastics and consume more fossil fuel-based energy. And the compostable bags now mandated in San Francisco will contaminate the recycling stream. How can we persuade thought leaders to look at the big picture?
* Focus on what people do with our products. It makes no sense to give up the benefits of single-use plastics because people litter or fail to recycle. If the problem is behavior, then we should work to help change it - and this applies to paper and other materials as much as to plastics. Instead of banning plastics, find a way to manage programs to recycle them. Often it's a matter of changing the culture. We have anti-littering laws; they're just not being enforced.
* Support SPI and use its resources. SPI has worked to resolve environmental, health and safety issues throughout the seven decades since it was founded. Besides its advocacy at federal and state levels, SPI includes business units and special-purpose groups that address issues affecting specific sectors of the industry.
Plastics News did the industry a favor when it invited a flat-out opponent of plastics to speak at its Executive Forum. She reminded us of the gut-level arguments being marshaled against our industry and the futility of attempting to counter them. The best way for our industry to prevail in the coming era of heightened ecological awareness is to provide a credible alternative to emotionalism and hand-picked statistics. We need to seize the initiative in addressing environmental concerns and take part in the ensuing dialogue as a responsible, rational and willing participant.
Klouda is president of MSI Mold Builders Inc. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a member of SPI's executive board.