It's always interesting to me to see what people outside the industry are saying about plastics.
A few weeks ago, staff reporter Mike Verespej talked to Susan Freinkel, a journalist who spent years studying the industry for her recently released book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.
Verespej's largely positive review called the book insightful, unbiased and fascinating. But that doesn't mean it was all positive.
“The arc of the story is sort of a love affair gone sour,” Freinkel said. “We initially thought that plastic was the most beautiful thing in the world. But then a couple of decades down the line, we started to see a downside because of health questions surrounding the chemicals in the plastic materials, the large amount of waste created and the reliance on finite resources.”
Plastics' durability, often considered a positive attribute, is a significant problem, at least in her eyes: “Few other materials we rely on carry such a negative set of associations or stir such visceral disgust. Humans could disappear from the earth tomorrow, but many of the plastics we've made will last for centuries,” she wrote.
Another author, David de Rothschild, has a similar take on the persistence of plastics. Rothschild wrote Plastiki: Across the Pacific on Plastic: An Adventure to Save Our Oceans, following his 2010 trip in a boat made from recycled plastic.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Rothschild emphasized both plastics' positives and its issues: “I think we have to recognize that plastic's not going to disappear any time soon, and we've got to learn to live with the consequences of our modern materials,” he said. “Plastic can be an incredibly reusable, resilient, sustainable material. It can be the right material. Look at the number of applications — you're sitting on a plastic phone, writing notes on a plastic computer, using a plastic pen to draw up some other notes. ... It's probably the most ubiquitous of all man-made materials.”
Rothschild is critical of plastics' place in our consumption-focused society. But rather than blaming consumers for buying too much stuff, he places the blame squarely on manufacturers.
He offers the example of a plastic straw. Why not make straws durable and reusable instead of disposable? To Rothschild, it's not a matter of consumer convenience or sanitation — the problem is the industry is focused on a “high-volume, high-consumption model.”
“It's not in the interest of the plastic industry to make products that are reusable and last longer when they're making money on high-volume, low-margin products, and churn, and consumption.
“It's an age-old problem: We live in a disposable society. At one point, it was a sign of affluence, I guess. These days, we've become highly suspicious of hygiene — so we use plastic forks once and throw them out. And we're hooked on convenience,” he said.
Critics' focus on single-use products is understandable. Durable products have a place in society. In fact, I know plenty of plastics processors that spend all of their time making durable parts, for customers like Deere & Co., Ford Motor Co. or Apple Inc.
Plastics, and the plastics industry, are flexible. They can be durable or disposable. Recyclable or degradable. We have the ability to deal with litter and marine debris, but we still need to keep in mind that the problem isn't all about plastic.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”