To celebratePlastics News' 20th anniversary, we continue our weekly countdown of the Top 20 issues of lasting impact, as reported in our pages. The series will end with the No. 1 issue in our 20th Anniversary special edition March 16.
This week: No. 2: Bans and attacks: plastics under pressure
It's hard to imagine the plastics industry more under attack than it is today.
There are assaults on plastics bags and takeout polystyrene packaging. The safety of chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenol A that are used to make plastic products for children is increasingly being questioned.
In addition, every type of plastic packaging and single-use product today needs to answer to critics who decry items that end up in landfills or as litter. These critics are quick to question a material's value in the new era of sustainability, where everyone is scrutinizing a product's carbon footprint.
The threats aren't just on the legislative or regulatory fronts. Relentless and persistent Web-based, new media campaigns have caused a number of retailers to stop carrying lunch boxes, children's utensils, coolers, baby bibs, infant changing tables and shower curtains made from PVC, and triggered stores to pull from their shelves polycarbonate baby bottles that contain BPA.
But the reality is that attacks on plastics were just as persistent 20 years ago, with efforts then under way to ban chlorine, a ban in New York's Suffolk County on PS and PVC takeout food containers, and the first concerted effort by environmentalists to ban plastic bags and PS takeout containers.
What's different is that yesterday's visible rallies have taken a back seat to well-organized new media campaigns that are designed to create public pressure, not just on governments to take action, but on retailers to remove products from their stores in other words, achieving the effect of a legislative ban without getting one enacted.
To see where plastics have come under attack, one just has to look at the special industry groups that have been formed, many in the past 20 years, to counter the series of neverending attacks on the different industry segments.
The Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Chemistry Council and its predecessor organizations were formed to meet the threats posed by proposed plastic bag bans or taxes. The council's Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group, which until two years ago was the Polystyrene Packaging Council, had its roots in the attacks on polystyrene takeout packaging.
The Chemical Manufacturers Association Phthalates Ester Panel has its hand full today with critics who have attacked the plasticizer as a health risk when it's a component of feeding products for children.
Likewise, the ACC's Polycarbonate/PBA Global Group must often fend off attacks on bisphenol A based on its possible health risks to small children.
Going back in time, the ACC's Chlorine Chemistry Division was formed in 1993 as the Chlorine Chemistry Council because of similar attacks and threats to phase out the building block of PVC. A large part of the mission of the ACC's Vinyl Institute is promote and defend vinyl aggressively from the continuing attacks by its critics.
To its credit, the plastics industry has successfully fended off many chemistry-specific bans, phthalates notwithstanding.
What's more, possibly because it has so often been under the gun, the industry has learned how to successfully ward off product bans, with the exception of numerous bans on PS take-out packaging in California.
Only Westport, Conn., and three communities in California San Francisco, Malibu and Fairfield actually have enacted plastic bag bans.
But the industry has been less successful in devising a successful strategy to combat what is likely to be the battleground of the 21st century the new media campaigns that pressure retailers and large institutions, including health-care facilities and governments, to de-select products, so as to avoid any association with potential negativity.