Last week Sarah Newman posted an item on The Huffington Post about "anti-plastic heroes" -- a list of 10 "artists, activists, politicians and even corporations who are offering inspiring ways to cut plastic consumption." Newman charges that plastics are "suffocating our planet," and that "we are smothering our planet in plastic waste." Some of the "Ten Anti-Plastics Heroes" have been featured before in The Plastics Blog -- the No. 1 hero, for example, is Beth Terry of Fake Plastic Fish. For her part, Terry says she's not anti-plastic:
I'm pro-living beings. Plastic is not destroying the Earth. The Earth will be around long after we and all the other living creatures have ceased to exist. And the plastic will have become just another geological layer. But the creatures on the Earth now... we are all suffering because of the misuse of the materials available to us, and that's why I do my work.Misuse of materials -- that's an interesting take on the problem, and perhaps a common ground where environmentalists both inside and outside the plastics industry can establish a dialogue. I saw Newman's and Terry's Earth Day-related posts last week, but was inspired to revisit them after seeing a recent post, and some comments, on the Society of the Plastics Industry's Inc.'s "In the Hopper" blog. The post, "Earth Day and Plastics," highlighted numerous ways that plastic contribute to a more sustainable world. That's about as far from Newman's post as you can get. SPI's Barry Eisenberg made a convincing case that plastics help to enable many environmental innovations -- like windmills, solar cells, and more efficient aircraft and automobiles. But is that missing the point? Critics of plastics (at least most of them) don't dispute that plastics offer benefits to society. Beth Terry posted a comment in response that said in part:
While I sincerely appreciate that plastics have made many of our advanced technologies possible, I cannot fail to notice that the article omits some of the most troubling forms of plastic -- those which are opposed by me and members of the Plastic Pollution Coalition: Single Use Disposable Plastics as well as plastics used to contain food and beverages. Single use disposables are the biggest form of litter polluting the planet and are almost completely unnecessary. Bringing our own reusable bags, bottles, and containers with us helps cut this unnecessary source of pollution, as do bans and fees on disposable bags and other containers. Plastic food containers, whether disposable or durable, can be hazardous to our health. We all know that plastics can leach the chemicals added to them, especially when subject to heat and rough handling. But how many of us actually know what those chemicals are? Phthalates, BPA, lead, antimicrobials are just some of the chemicals that can leach from certain plastics. But as you know, there are a whole host of chemicals added to affect plastic's qualities, and manufacturers are not required to disclose any of them. U.S. law requires labeling of all ingredients on food products. Unfortunately, the chemicals that can leach from the plastic containers are not included in those ingredient lists. So how can consumers truly make informed decisions? Are your members willing to disclose the "recipes" for their products, or will they forever hide behind claims of proprietary information? It's fine to be proud of your contributions to sustainability, but how about also addressing the ways in which plastics play a part in polluting the planet?Eisenberg responded with a defense of plastics, to be sure, but he acknowledged that "industry needs to do more."
For decades, our industry has been a leader in finding innovative solutions to a variety of societal problems. Currently, overall sustainability and developing products with an enhanced environmental profile are targets squarely in our crosshairs. We agree that we absolutely must drive waste from the packaging value chain. Frankly, initiatives to cut plastic waste not only yield improved sustainability but are also cost-effective for companies. The packaging industry has been focused on reducing the amount of packaging necessary for a long time. But certainly industry needs to do more. Innovative solutions that augment physical recycling - including waste-to-energy and biobased/biodegradable materials -- are becoming more prevalent.... Beth, we appreciated your recent Earth Day blog post. Particularly when you wrote, "We are all suffering because of the misuse of the materials." We couldn't agree more.Manufacturers of single-use plastics have their own take on product sustainability. As Eisenberg mentions, they point to benefits of plastic packaging including energy and material savings. Newman, Terry and Eisenberg didn't settle the pro-plastics vs. anti-plastics debate on Earth Day 2010. But at least Terry and Eisenberg found a little bit of common ground. I don't think it will be enough that Newman won't be updating her "anti-plastic heroes" list on Earth Day 2011, though.