After all the talk in recent weeks about avoiding plastics, The New York Times had a little different take on the topic recently, with an op-ed column “Plastic: Too Good to Throw Away.”
The column is written by Susan Freinkel, the author of the forthcoming Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.
While Plastics News readers may relate to the Times column's headline, the article itself isn't exactly a love letter to the industry. But it does have a message that some readers may consider positive — that plastics have many worthwhile attributes.
“It's estimated that half of the nearly 600 billion pounds of plastics produced each year go into single-use products. Some are indisputably valuable, like disposable syringes, which have been a great ally in preventing the spread of infectious diseases like HIV, and even plastic water bottles, which, after disasters like the Japanese tsunami, are critical to saving lives,” Freinkel writes.
“In a world of nearly 7 billion souls and counting, we are not going to feed, clothe and house ourselves solely from wood, ore and stone; we need plastics. And in an era when we're concerned about our carbon footprint, we can appreciate that lightweight plastics take less energy to produce and transport than many other materials. Plastics also make possible green technology like solar panels and lighter cars and planes that burn less fuel. These ‘unnatural' synthetics, intelligently deployed, could turn out to be nature's best ally.”
But she takes plastics — and, it seems, consumers — to task for wasting this valuable resource on too many single-use throwaway products.
Disposables like bags, straws, packaging and lighters are “essentially prefab litter with a heavy environmental cost,” she writes, adding that “... we can't hope to achieve plastic's promise for the 21st century if we stick with wasteful 20th-century habits of plastic production and consumption.”
Freinkel seems to be echoing the opinions of some Plastics News readers who bridle at what they consider unfair attacks on plastics, while at the same time complaining that at least some of the industry's problems are the result of a culture that encourages overuse.
Look at it this way: Crusades to outlaw water packaged in PET, or grocery bags made of polyethylene are shortsighted. Bottled water has definite attributes, as do PE bags.
But just as shortsighted is our culture that encourages consumers to drink bottled water every day at home or on the job, when they have access to inexpensive and safe tap water, or to accept a PE bag with every single purchase at the grocery store, even when the product is small enough to carry out of the store — or to put in your pocket.
I have a feeling that not all Plastics News readers will agree with Freinkel's column — or her book. But I also think she's not that far off from expressing the opinions of many in the plastics industry.
Loepp is Plastics News editor and author of “The Plastics Blog.”