"As goes California, so goes the nation." The claim is not new, but on public policy issues, trends and technology, the state and its citizens are often leaders or early adopters. However, an idea advanced by the Los Angeles Times — banning all "single-use" plastics — would be counterproductive in protecting our environment.
The Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), the only organization that represents every segment of the plastics supply chain, welcomes the focus on reducing waste and promoting product stewardship, but not this misguided solution.
Unfortunately, as with many public policy topics, talking points can sound good, but they don't always align with the facts, science and technology needed in the conversation. When confronting suggestions like banning single-use plastics, I believe all Plastics Industry Association members and their customers need to become a part of the conversation and work together to create solutions to better protect our environment.
Plastics have been called "the workhorse material of the modern economy — with unbeaten properties" that we see every day but often go overlooked by others. Single-use plastics are a part of the tableau of plastics we need as a society. Critics don't acknowledge that so-called "single-use" grocery bags are rarely used once. Nor may they realize the array of crucial items including syringes, blood collection tubes, operating room protections, bandages and diapers that the term "single-use" encompasses.
Such plastics are vital to our food chain as foods are safer and stay fresher when protected in plastic; the shelf life of a California English cucumber wrapped in plastic is three-times longer than one unwrapped. This reduces food waste when already one-third of the world's food produced each year gets wasted. The impact of this loss goes beyond the billions of tons of food; it also squanders resources, including water, land, energy, labor and capital, and it also produces greenhouse gases contributing to global warming and climate change.
These consequences are too frequently lost in the conversation on plastics. Consider a food company evaluating packaging options for its product: alternatives like glass, aluminum and paper all use more water and energy and produce more carbon emissions in their production than plastics. For food production, safety and feeding the world, plastics are part of the most comprehensive environmentally friendly solution. If plastics were replaced, we would be dealing with greater air pollution challenges and a whole different set of water quality issues.
It is also clear that our view of a plastic bottle in a waterway differs from most; we are not only saddened to see that bottle where it shouldn't be and its impact on ecosystems, but we also see an uncaptured economic resource. Our plastic products are valuable in their first use and in their later reincarnations through recycling and reuse. Our current recycling technology makes it possible to reuse the polyethylene milk jug dozens of times — efficiently and responsibly.
California's focus and environmental leadership should be focused on the real problem: needed improvements in solid waste management systems to protect the environment and citizens as well as prevent all materials from polluting waterways and land.
In the U.S., we hold transportation infrastructure projects as worthy of tax dollars; expanded curbside recycling and improved material recovery facilities need to attract similar funding. We know that so much more of our product is recyclable or recoverable were it not for state and local governments' lack of sorting technology and equipment, insufficient access to curbside collection and barriers to wider adoption of conversion technologies. Addressing those issues would create jobs, lessen the amount of material going to landfill and help make recycling as routine as brushing our teeth. Furthermore, given the economic return associated with recycling and composting, public–private partnerships are a viable funding source to enhance our capabilities.
The Los Angeles Times and everyone involved in plastics share a vision where the world is free of litter — but we cannot ban our way out of our problem. We need to do a better job explaining our products, why they are useful and needed, and how they are produced, managed and recycled. Even if your company isn't involved in straws or bottle manufacturing, you need to be involved in the discussion.
Later this spring, the Plastics Industry Association will launch "This Is Plastics," a resource to inspire meaningful discussions about the power of plastics. With it, we'll empower you to address these issues head-on and to articulate the importance of our products and explain what the plastics industry is doing to address problems in our environment and improve recycling. We will continue to face questions. We have to, and we will provide answers, tackle important conversations and offer solutions.
Bill Carteaux is president and CEO of the Washington-based Plastics Industry Association. Follow him on Twitter @bcarteaux.