[This letter was submitted to The Atlantic in response to a May 30 column "Plastics recycling doesn't work and will never work."]
Authors Judith Enck and Jan Dell follow in the footsteps of other sensationalist headline writers (including Rebecca Altman, also published in The Atlantic recently) in attempting to link plastics to tobacco, at least in terms of corporate malfeasance and dirty PR tricks.
By suggesting that the plastics industry (whatever that is) is "following the tobacco industry's playbook," Enck and Dell imply that an entire industry is out to fool the public by "waging a decadeslong campaign" that recycling is a myth. (Cue the images of smoke-filled boardrooms and nefarious cackling.)
Many people who work in the entire plastics supply chain, including polymer scientists at resin companies to material scientists at major FMCGs [fast-moving consumer goods companies] to line workers at food packaging plants, would agree that there are significant challenges with plastics recycling, including an acknowledgment that not all of it can be recycled. They, and many others, might also point out that plastics are a fraction of the total amount of materials humanity creates and discards in a mostly linear economy.
Because plastics are lightweight and efficient, we can manufacture a tremendous amount of them with relatively little energy, unlike heavier materials such as glass and aluminum. (Did the authors forget to visit an aluminum smelter or glass furnace?) What the authors completely ignore is the overall GHG [greenhouse gas] considerations for plastics vs. these other materials.
We should not ignore the very real challenges of plastic waste and its environmental impact, but it doesn't help to sensationalize the issue and make dubious ("plastics are flammable") and false ("plastics are not inert") claims. Using links to other sources that confirm the authors' bias is also unhelpful and intellectually dishonest.
Organic chemistry is difficult and poorly understood by the public at large. In an age when stories possibly matter more than facts, and people want to digest easy black or white sound bites, the many shades of gray that exist lead to confusion and false narratives. It is not easy to accept that we must become comfortable with ambiguity.
Conor P. Carlin is vice president of sustainability for the Society of Plastics Engineers.