Plastics and the American public have always had something of a love-hate relationship.
At times plastics enjoy popular acclaim, such as when post-World War II-era women, tired of rationing and scrimping through the war years, rushed into stores for nylon stockings, which looked like silk but held up much better.
At other times, it's been mocked as a symbol of all that's fake in America's throw-away con¼sumer culture, like the well-known scene in the 1968 film The Graduate, where a college-age Dustin Hoffman is given some hollow-sounding advice by a middle-aged member of the establishment: Pursue a career in plastics.
Although it may sound odd to think of an inert piece of plastic as having an image problem, the industry has spent huge sums of money over the years trying to mold consumer opinion.
Like a suitor with a Tupperware container full of chocolates, the industry wooed the public about the benefits of plastics in the 1990s and first half of this decade with its $250 million “Plastics Make it Possible” television ad campaign.
The industry also conducts focus groups and surveys to gauge opinion, to see that attitudes don't wind up hurting sales or fueling negative legislation.
Twenty years ago plastics found itself in just that spot, when negative feelings about the material as a cause of trash and pollution and of wasting oil resources were pushing companies and governments to choose other materials considered more environmentally friendly, like McDonald's famous move to stop using the polystyrene clamshell burger box.
“There was a lot of pressure for deselection and a lot of guilt for the public in using plastics — there was a tremendous amount of guilt,” said Stephen Gardner, spokesman for the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va., whose plastics division operated the pro-plastics advertising campaign. “The campaign was to assuage that by showing the benefits of using plastics.”
Gardner said the “Plastics Make it Possible” campaign largely worked. The public, he said, no longer feels guilty simply for using plastics, and in industry-funded opinion polls, plastic is on a par with paper, glass, aluminum and steel in public attitudes for things like environmental issues and performance.
The industry took those ads off the air two years ago in a budget-cutting move, and shifted resources to a broader image campaign to bolster the entire chemical industry. Thus far, attitudes about plastic have remained good, even with the reduced media profile, Gardner said.
But there are signs that public opinion could be changing, particularly about litter and resource conservation issues, as environmental concerns rise, he said.
Places from San Francisco to Taiwan to Ireland have moved to ban or reduce plastic bag use, and people are lining up to buy the trendy “I'm Not a Plastic Bag” tote bag at stores. Even first lady Laura Bush, who sticks to pretty mainstream political causes, has used her pulpit to talk about how discarded plastics are drifting in the ocean in large numbers and killing marine life.
“We have seen broadly in our polling, the environment has come on very strongly in public issues in the last year,” Gardner said. “It's fair to say we have seen pressure in the last six months, particularly in some of those bellwether areas, like in California, where there are a lot of initiatives on plastic bags.”
For some in the industry, he said the debates today foreshadow the intense political pressure of late 1980s: “I've heard executives who were involved 20 years ago say that the pressure they see coming, particularly in California, it feels like it did then.”
One environmental group in California that is active in efforts against single-use plastic packaging said the material attracts so much public attention because of its dominance in packaging markets.
“It becomes a plastic issue because the plastic industry has helped turn us into a disposable society,” said Stephanie Barger, executive director of Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Earth Resource Foundation. “People are frustrated with all the pollution and frustrated with all the packaging.”
ERF, which is orchestrating an effort called “The Campaign Against the Plastic Plague,” pushes reusable packaging.
“We don't want people to switch from plastic disposable bags to paper disposable bags,” Barger said. “We want people to use reusable bags.”
The plastics industry has faced image challenges at other times in its history.
Plastics in America really took off after World War II, when the affordability and design advantages of products like Tupperware made from polyethylene and other new plastics helped fuel a consumption boom, said Jeffrey Meikle, a University of Texas historian and author of the 1995 book American Plastic: A Cultural History.
But at the time, plastics were considered cheap and shoddy, so the industry ran advertising supplements in women's magazines and heavily promoted the benefits of plastics, Meikle said in an interview connected with the 2005 PBS American Experience documentary “Tupperware!”
“The industry had a serious image problem,” he said.
Today, Meikle said, as plastic has matured, its popularity in things like computers and sporting equipment has allowed it to shed the image of being cheap and unreliable.
It's those more technologically inventive uses that the industry needs to do a better job of touting, in part because they can have environmental benefits, said Anthony Andrady, senior scientist at North Carolina's Research Triangle Institute and editor of the 2003 book Plastics and the Environment.
The widespread use of plastics in cars reduces weight and improves gas mileage, and its use in home insulation reduces energy consumption, he said.
As well, he pointed to the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, which is about 50 percent made from plastic composites, more than five times that of the 777 model. That reduces weight, requiring less fuel, and reduces costs by making the plane easier to assemble, Andrady said.
“The public gets a lot of information on the negative aspects of plastics … and the plastics industry has done very little to correct that,” he said.