I was trading emails with a longtime plastics industry executive about the current state of the industry. He wasn't happy.
He was upset by the news that Ian Calderon, D-Whittier, the majority leader of California's state Assembly, had introduced a bill that would make it a crime for a sit-down restaurant to offer customers a straw with a beverage unless it was specifically requested.
The proposed penalty: up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
Criminalizing plastic? Is that necessary?
Until now, Plastics News had not written about the proposal because our general rule is that we only cover bills that have a realistic chance of passing. Any legislator can propose a bill. But if it can't at least get out of a single committee, it's just an exercise in generating publicity. And this one didn't seem to have a prayer.
But quite a few mainstream newspapers and websites covered it anyway, and I had shared some of their reports on social media.
The plastics executive called the stories “incredible and distressingly disgusting.” He had made a living making plastics products. He wondered how we have gotten to this point where it's socially acceptable to attack plastics or any other material.
Why can't Calderon get on board with voluntary efforts to reduce waste? I asked. Why not encourage restaurants to hand out straws only upon request, instead of making it illegal? The American Chemistry Council, the trade group that represents most U.S. resin manufacturers, has embraced that approach.
Still, I understand his strategy. Unless threatened with action, industry may be unmotivated to change.
For plastics, this is nothing new. There's always been a stigma attached to plastics, which have been branded as artificial, made from oil and full of toxic chemicals. Much of the criticism is misguided or inaccurate.
On the other hand, overuse of single-use plastics isn't sustainable. We need to inject some common sense into this debate.
I've recently written that recyclers can help the industry deal with unfair attacks. But some readers are skeptical. We all know of plenty of major investments in plastics recycling that ended up failing and costing millions of dollars. But I'm still optimistic because I've seen plastics recycling work.
Some readers suggest that what's needed is some sort of extended producer responsibility to help make recycling successful over the long term. I've offered editorial support to that concept for a long time, namely with bottle deposits. The plastics industry would be smart to get behind that now, but it doesn't go far enough. I think we're going to see more EPR legislation targeting specific products and maybe even some resins.
There are plenty of nonlegislative efforts happening, too. Brand owners and some major packaging companies have stepped up with recent commitments to use more recycled plastics. Industry attitudes seem to be changing. That's a positive sign.
All that said, there's one industry practice that annoys the environmental community more than any other: It's the effort to stop cities from banning plastic products by passing laws on the state level that make local bans illegal. It's the equivalent of Calderon's straw law — legislation that goes too far in response to bans that don't make sense in every community.
Let's pause for a moment and consider what the proper response should be. What strategy is both reasonable and defensible?
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.