I've tried to understand plastophobia for years now and do have some answers — the people see them as indefinite, unnatural, synthetic, unpredictable: "We know what metal is, what wood is, what paper is, but we don't know what plastic is." The very word means moldable, changeable, as plastic surgery.
But that's not enough. If I say that gold, steel, lead and mercury are all metals, but very different from one another, the 'phobes will hold to their fear of the unknown.
If I reply that "natural" isn't necessarily good, citing "naturals" like tornadoes, poisonous mushrooms and the common cold virus, it still doesn't matter — these aren't human-created; they are natural. It's us that we distrust.
It doesn't help that plastics are associated with Big Oil and are believed as "made from oil," which may be chemically true but ignores the reality that competitive materials also require energy to make, often more than plastics.
"Made from plants" carries a sanctity that some people are actually willing to pay more for, to appeal to well-meaning but unscientific customers. The push toward "chemical recycling" is a rush to green image, despite negative energy cost and maybe financial as well.
Plastics themselves are nontoxic. Even their detractors haven't followed this line, preferring to talk about digestive disturbances in sea animals. No matter.
There has to be something more to justify the phrases "plastics pollution" and "plastics crisis," which you wrote about and a still-growing worldwide belief, and it is this eagerness to believe our materials are damaging at best and evil at worst that has preoccupied me in these, my latter days of unsenile seniority.
The public sees plastics as the product of science (especially chemistry), and they are scared. We believe what we see, not vice versa. Science doesn't know everything — "mystery OK, magic No." Yet we need magic, the "make-believe" of the movies and theater and fiction, to stay sane, to function as cultures, societies and humans. Belonging is what matters, and we will believe what we need to belong. Lately, the common bond is looking for and even enjoying the belief in the harmfulness of plastics, the necessary evil.
What bothers me the most is the reluctance of our own industry to seek and understand the reasons. Many still think education is the key, or fight legal fires like bans and taxes where they are proposed, or assume that the the whole world is scientific and just lacks the money to clean up our act. I recently responded on a blog to a tech question related to PET vs. PVC by asking why they didn't want PVC. No one replied to the issue of PVC's image despite my explicit request to do so, and I was criticized for "twisting" the subject matter.
So now I write you, more words than I intended at first. Post it, publish it, abstract it but don't bury it. Its ghost will still be with us.
Allan Griff is a longtime plastics industry consultant.