(April 21, 2008) — Many plastics processors can switch materials fairly easily. So if customers decide they won't buy polycarbonate baby bottles or polyethylene grocery bags anymore, processors might keep the business by offering alternatives in polypropylene or polylactic acid.
But consider the headlines about bisphenol A safety in the past week, including many stories that painted all plastics with the same broad brush, and you may realize there's often more to an issue than “simply” changing resin.
A few days ago I received a note from a reader who was frustrated with recent events and suggested a need for some changes.
“I'm tired of the public perceptions of plastics and our own measly efforts in their rebuttal,” he wrote. “I'm tired of seeing my own plastics colleagues sucked into the preconceived notions of the legitimately scared but woefully misinformed general public.”
He added: “A serious take on this is Henrik Ibsen's play, An Enemy of the People, and a comic and more-digestible, but no-less-pointed take is the quote from Walt Kelly, writer of the forgotten-by-the-young comic strip Pogo: 'We have met the enemy, and he is us!' ”
This is right on the money. The industry's defenders have been fighting fires for a long time, but not doing enough to prevent the blazes from breaking out in the first place.
I wonder, though, who is really the enemy? The plastics industry's leaders or its followers?
Once I worked for a newspaper where the editor lamented the lack of community leadership. I thought, “He's wrong, there are plenty of leaders. The problem is he doesn't agree with what they're doing.”
How many plastics executives feel the same way today?
I think the plastics industry does have effective leaders, but they don't have the clout to fight in the arenas where the battles are taking place. A few weeks ago, Bill Carteaux, president and chief executive officer of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., spoke to a group of reporters at the Plastimagen trade show in Mexico City. He pointed out the issues that the plastics industry is dealing with today are global in nature.
With the Internet, he added, when an activist or politician proposes a bag tax today in, say, India, by tomorrow the news has circled the globe. Often, it seems, when plastics get negative press in one part of the world, the story gets repeated elsewhere.
“We're fighting against global groups that are well-organized,” Carteaux said — better organized than the plastics industry.
With issues like BPA and phthalates, the lines tend to get blurry. Opponents argue safety, while industry pushes science. But how can we depend on the media to pay attention to both sides?
Some newspapers have excellent environmental reporters who present well-informed, balanced stories. But how many readers get their news from these sources? And in these days of declining newspaper circulation, how many papers will stay committed to doing good work on environmental issues, rather than just parroting the latest news release from a group that has a name that sounds environmentally friendly?
I think it's clear SPI and the American Chemistry Council need help. Perhaps some executives reading this column feel the same.
Loepp is Plastics News managing editor and author of The Plastics Blog.