Most discussions about plastics in social media are biased -- and frequently negative. But if you want to see a healthy debate on critical issues the industry if facing in 2012, read on: Plastics News recently published a Perspective column by Chandler Slavin, sustainability coordinator for packaging thermoformer Dordan Manufacturing Co., "Plastics foes wage campaign on social media battleground." The topic was something that Slavin has spent a lot of time researching, and the spark for her column was a short story -- "Seabird study shows spike in plastic ocean litter" -- from our sister publication Waste & Recycling News. Slavin felt that the facts on plastics and ocean debris are often misrepresented -- a topic that I've written about too. One of her points is that she understands that she has a pro-plastics bias, but she's not sure if critics are being fair or accurate in their attacks. "I do want to emphasize that the truth will always trump my predisposition to highlight plastics' positives," she wrote. "If I genuinely felt that plastics are 'cheap, nasty and toxic,' I would find another job. My degree in ethics and social justice has provided me with the tools to analyze all arguments, arriving at a conclusion supported by verifiable facts; consequently, I approach all the plastics hot-button topics, be it material health, ocean debris, non-renewable feedstocks, etc., with the same due diligence and attention to detail I would approach any academic inquiry." She added that while the jury on plastics and the environment is still out, "if we -- representatives of the plastics industry -- continue to ignore the social-media fervor around plastics, we may find ourselves unable to shift the public discourse, which for all intents and purposes is more contingent on he who shouts the loudest than he who shouts the truth." It was a good column with an important message to Plastics News readers, which is one reason I'm highlighting it again today. But there's another reason, too. After the column was posted on PlasticsNews.com, it generated some excellent responses that I'm sure most readers haven't seen. Wallace J. Nichols of the California Academy of Sciences wrote: "Thanks for your thoughtful post. We've seen plastic show up on all of the sea turtle beaches where we work around the world and increasingly inside the sea turtles we work with. Plastic doesn't always kill sea turtles, but it certainly isn't good. The solutions to the plastic pollution problem will take a long time and I fear the situation will get much worse before it gets better, as plastic production and use continues to grow in places with little or no means of proper disposal or recycling. But lots of good people are working hard." Stiv WIlson of The 5 Gyres Institute wrote an unusually long and thoughtful response, addressing many of Slavin's points directly -- and with an insider's take on the plastic marine debris debate. Wilson wrote: "It stands to reason that the more our population grows, and the more plastic that we consume, some percentage of it will escape into the environment. The oceans are paying the price. The ocean is getting dirtier by plastic, it doesn't biodegrade and thus it accumulates. The problem is getting worse which means the mitigation strategies are not working. Holding on to antiquated mitigation strategies is a lesson in futility. Plastic producers vehemently oppose regulations that have proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most effective strategies for plastic recovery-- i.e. PET bottle bills. Why? What happens if the solution to this problem requires a decrease in consumption of plastic products? How can their be a market based solution? "Here is where we agree: We don't have a choice but to work together. The gloves have been off and that's what got this issue out of the closet and into the forefront. But if you're serious about talking this out, and are prepared to make some concessions I will behave myself at the conference table. Because if we agree that we want to solve the problem, we're going to have to do it by rational, reasoned, metric means." [I'm quite pleased to have Wilson's voice in our debate, but I do feel that one of his points isn't quite fair. I don't believe that plastic producers "vehemently oppose" PET bottle bills. The real opposition to deposits comes from beverage companies and groceries.] Nicholas Mallos from Ocean Conservancy -- who Wilson mentioned by name in his own remarks -- also joined the chorus of comments on Slavin's column. "Since joining the organization a little more than 2 years ago, Ocean Conservancy has been engaged openly in the dialogue on plastic pollution and the very real threats it poses to marine ecosystems and the organisms and economies that depend on them," Mallos wrote. "We have a goal of Trash Free Seas -- and as part of that vision -- believe strongly that no single solution exists to solve the problem of ocean trash. Therefore, Ocean Conservancy is willing to work with any entity or company that is genuinely committed to solving the problem of ocean trash by contributing to the suite of solutions that is necessary to affect change. "Ocean Conservancy's stance on plastic pollution is best illustrated by our recent blog post on The Blog Aquatic: 'Are We Building Plastic Beaches?'" Finally, Harold Johnson, a Saco, Maine, journalist and author of "The Flotsam Diaries" blog (PN readers will remember him from this column), weighed in the other day: "How exciting to have found this post. I just published an article for [Scientific American] last week describing the massive amounts of sunk plastic washing up at a tiny deserted cove in southern Maine. What floats on the surface is literally the tip of the iceberg, and what sinks does persist, and is real. Despite whitewashes. It's not a surprise that the plastics industry continually comes back to SEA's 2010 report and completely dismisses other work like that of Miriam Goldstein just a few months ago. "It's not a surprise that the industry helps scupper ideas like bottle bills and switching to reusable bags. These represent a cost, and the industry can't have that. "It's not a surprise that the industry still uses the word 'recycle' shamanistically while holding a recycling bin as a talisman. Even though recycling plastic just adds -more- plastic to the world instead of less. "And it's not a surprise that the industry puts the blame squarely on the end consumer. As Stiv above says, even in nations where the industry has rooted itself before there were any form of modern waste-management systems in place. "What is a surprise is that the industry is still taken seriously as a concerned actor. As though people still believe it is working in good faith to solve a growing, worsening pandemic of garbage, and the loss of economic, ecological, and emotional vitality that such garbage causes. "It's time to cut the copouts and the rhetoric, legislate industry responsibility since it won't act responsibly itself, and start to change the game." This has been a pretty high-level discussion of plastics and marine debris, involving some key players and leading voices in the debate. So I thank Slavin for starting the ball rolling, and I encourage others -- from the plastics industry, and environmentalists -- to continue the discussion.
A healthy social media debate about plastics
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