Is America experiencing a wave of anti-plastics sentiment? It's starting to feel that way. This year we've seen a triple whammy, with headlines popping up around the country about communities banning or taxing plastic bags, putting restrictions on purchases of bottled water, and expressing concerns about the safety of bisphenol A and phthalates.
On the surface, the plastic bag issue seems to be the most direct threat to the plastics industry. But I know processor company executives who don't feel a great attachment to plastic bags, and aren't worried about the banning/taxing trend. I'm also surprised by how little feedback we've received from readers about challenges to plastic bags.
The plastics companies that are fighting on behalf of grocery bags are pursuing a pretty good strategy (although it took a bit too long to get started). Just arguing that plastic bags are environmentally superior to paper was an inadequate defense. Paper has drawbacks, obviously (they're not made by magic elves who weave rainbows, after all). But the problems with plastic are litter — and ultimately marine debris — and overuse. Consumers themselves should address the overuse issue. Sometimes they just need to say no, thanks, we don't need a bag. And now that groceries and plastic bag suppliers are getting serious about bag recycling, they may have a solution for the litter problem. Let's hope they're serious and it's not too late — not just to save the plastic bag sector, but to keep our oceans and countryside from choking on bag trash.
(On a related note, I saw a story last week from New York where a county legislator spoke out against plastic bags. She argued that “plastics should be phased out because of the fossil fuel consumed to make them.” Apparently the industry needs to work harder to convince people that plastics save fuel.)
Only half of the bottled water issue is directly related to plastics. Solid waste and a chronically low recycling rate are concerns. But even if those issues disappeared tomorrow — and they could, with a container-deposit system — bottled water critics wouldn't go away.
That's because they don't want consumers to buy bottled water at all. I can understand their logic up to a point. It doesn't make sense, for example, to buy a bottle of water to drink at home (assuming you have safe, clean water at home). But if you're on the road, why can't you buy a bottle of water to quench your thirst? If bottled water is banned, the next step will be to ban bottled soda pop and iced tea.
Finally, on the BPA and phthalate question, it's clear that the plastics industry is losing the battle. Consulting engineer Allan Griff sent me a copy of an e-mail last week where he asked why the chemical industry response to BPA concerns is so lame.
“If you do not spray truth on this fear-driven anti-plasticism, who will?”
That's an excellent question, Allan. The “Plastics make it possible” and “Take another look at plastics ” ad campaigns of the 1990s were a step in the right direction. Perhaps it's time to revisit that concept.
Loepp is Plastics News managing editor and author of The Plastics Blog.