The Boston Globe's Sunday magazine had a big feature story about plastics yesterday, and it's noteworthy that the story was quite positive. It feels a little weird blogging on this one, since I'm a source quoted in the story. But a half dozen people who saw the story yesterday have already mentioned it to me today. So I thought I should point it out to those who missed it. The story has a headline that will attract attention, especially from plastics industry members used to negative media attention. The title: "In Praise of Plastic: Why an oil-sucking, landfill-clogging, non-biodegradable, it's-everywhere material is so good for the environment. Really." Here's a taste of the story:
Plastic -- symbol of a bankrupt consumer society from its maxed-out credit cards to its obsession with in-bulk acquisition -- is about as popular these days as an oil spill. People love to hate plastic for the petroleum used to produce it, for the litter it becomes, for the space it takes up in landfills, and the damage it can do in oceans. At one point this year in the United States alone, the plastics industry faced some 400 pieces of anti-plastics legislation, including one on Beacon Hill and another in Plymouth. Plastic bags -- for the plastic-haters, anyway -- are especially evil. The goal of most of the proposed laws is taxing the use of plastic bags or banning them outright. And though most have failed or wound up tabled, the anti-plastics people have had their victories, too. Namely, Seattle. In July, the city of Seattle banned polystyrene takeout food packaging (think Styrofoam coffee cups or soup bowls) and placed a 20-cent tax on plastic bags that is set to go into effect January 1. The City Council's vote, supported by the mayor, shook a plastics industry that was still reeling from a panic in the spring. Parents concerned over the use of a possibly harmful chemical called bisphenol A, found in some clear plastic baby bottles among other things, ditched the bottles in droves, and some stores and manufacturers did the same. Then there was the phthalate ban, enacted by Congress over the summer, singling out yet another worrisome chemical often found in plastic toys. Overall, it has been a bad year for plastics. But, quietly, the plastics industry, plastics engineers, and plastics lovers -- yes, they do exist -- are making a case for what may be a misunderstood touchstone of our times. "We see the legislative debates as an opportunity to tell the story of plastics," says Steve Russell, managing director of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council, the group that represents the plastics industry. "And we believe there's a great story to tell." Plastics, Russell and others argue, aren't just durable, convenient, and inexpensive to manufacture; innovative new plastic packaging is actually more energy-efficient than other alternatives and helps users reduce, not increase, their carbon footprints.The story goes on to tout the benefits of plastics in packaging, automobiles, aircraft and construction. The underlying message is that plastics have plenty of positive attributes and don't deserve the bad reputation they have accumulated over the years. But the industry's poor recycling record is front-and-center. "... Plastics are recyclable, able in most cases to be used over and over again," the story states. "The problem is, Americans, even as global warming becomes an accepted truth, don't take recycling seriously. In 2006, Americans consumed more than 29 million tons of plastic, but recycled just 2 million tons of it, a paltry 7 percent." I have a feeling some in the plastics industry will miss that point and focus instead on the rare praise found elsewhere in the article. Regardless, I'm pleased to see that reporter Keith O'Brien did such a thorough, well written story about plastics. I will be recommending the article to others who are looking for background information about the industry.