Here's a symptom of the plastics industry's image problem. Last week the U.S. House of Representatives' cafeteria went back to using polystyrene, after four years of using biodegradable coffee cups. The new bosses in Washington decided they don't want to subsidize a composting program anymore.
The problem for plastics: Political pundits, without any serious look at the issue, universally consider it a step in the wrong direction.
Yes, we're to the point where the Washington press corps, known for its tenacity for getting to the bottom of a story — checking out all the angles, believing no one — is perfectly satisfied with believing that plastic products are automatically an environmental nightmare.
It's a universal truth, right?
The Wonkette.com blog called PS foam “a miraculous invention that manages to be completely awful through every step of its near-eternal ‘life cycle' — it is manufactured with petroleum that must be imported from Middle East dictatorships, toxic ‘styrene oligomers' migrate into the food it holds, it's highly flammable and produces black poisonous smoke, and most of the 25 billion polystyrene cups tossed every year will take more than half a millennium to degrade.”
This is more than a plastics story, of course. It's a political story.
The Republicans are in control of the House of Representatives now. There's some significant symbolism involved when one of their first moves was to drop an expensive but “feel-good” composting program in the cafeteria and replace it with single-use PS.
Some House Democrats jumped on the opportunity to criticize the opposition, at the expense of plastics' reputation.
Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., said PS cups cause cancer and can endanger the health of workers in the Capitol.
“In fact, Styrofoam cups will increase costs to our country due to health-related impacts, toxic cleanups, new landfill construction and increased reliance on energy-intensive, oil-based plastics. Our compostable cups did none of this,” Honda said.
I suppose you can't blame reporters for playing up the “Republicans hate the environment” angle. Or, from the other perspective, there's the “GOP cuts a wasteful program” news angle. This story fits the preconceived notions so well, it practically writes itself.
On top of everything else, the cafeteria's PS cup supplier is New WinCup Holdings Inc. Quicker than you can say “Enron/BP/Halliburton,” conspiracy theorists point out that WinCup's George Wurtz used to work for Georgia Pacific LLC — now a division of Koch Industries. My stars, isn't Koch behind the anti-union effort in Wisconsin? Just imagine the fun The X-Files would have with this.
Wouldn't it be nice to put aside the politics for a minute and stop trying to win points from voters by bashing plastics?
But that's not going to happen until the public is informed enough about the issues that they won't automatically believe anything negative that critics say about plastics.
Loepp is Plastics News managing editor and author of “The Plastics Blog.”