Plastic is the eco-friendly option. So why is the plastic industry leaving that argument on the table?
Activists have weaponized misleading imagery to spread anti-plastic disinformation. Videos of sad turtles and a 9-year-old's science project convinced major cities to ban straws, which led to bag bans, then takeout containers and now bottles. Disinformation is destroying America's plastic industry one city at a time.
Yet as a whole, the environmental data is on plastic's side.
The United States is responsible for less than 1 percent of the mismanaged plastic trash in the ocean. Almost all ocean trash comes from 10 rivers in Africa and Asia. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is predominantly abandoned fishing gear dragged to sea by a 2011 tsunami in Japan. Yet the national conversation on ocean pollution is largely devoid of these facts.
Plastic is better for the environment in almost every case. A study by McKinsey and Co. found that plastic had a lesser carbon footprint than its alternatives in 14 out of 15 products, echoing a similar study by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency.
A study from Imperial College of London found that the United Kingdom would generate the additional emissions equivalent to 21 large coal-fired power plants if it switched every bottle from plastic to glass.
While we are not opposed to aluminum products, the facts are that PET plastic bottle production emits half as much carbon dioxide as aluminum. And aluminum production emits PFCS with a global warming potential up to 9,200 times that of carbon dioxide. Harvesting bauxite — the ore used to make aluminum — is one of today's most pressing human rights issues. The process causes riots in underdeveloped countries because the bauxite dust is toxic to vegetation and farmers alike. Yet Americans believe plastic is problematic.
There's no reason plastic users should be losing the ethical or environmental argument, but it is.
My organization, the Essential Plastics Coalition, is working to change the debate. We've identified three ways to properly reframe the issue.
First, defending all plastics at the same time is a losing strategy.
Not all plastics are created equal, nor do they all have the same impact on society — positive or negative. Yet they're often demonized as one product. Plastic gloves, masks and syringes keep our health care system running. Plastic water bottles keep victims healthy during unexpected disasters or lead and bacterial contaminations in the hundreds of water boil alerts annually. Plastic food wrap prevents food waste reducing methane and carbon dioxide emissions.
These products all have essential functions. Many can be easily recycled. But activists ignore these facts while condemning the entire industry. Instead, they focus on frivolous plastics that cannot be recycled, including polystyrene foam. Until chemical recycling or some other innovation takes over, alternatives to these low-value plastics are better for the planet. But by refusing to acknowledge this, the plastics industry is going to fall on its sword defending its weakest link.
Our second guiding principle is that America's recycling system needs serious improvement.
Right now, it's too confusing. Low recycling rates shouldn't be a surprise. Polystyrene foam has the same difficult-to-read chasing arrows recycling logo as a fully recyclable plastic bottle. How many Americans know which numbers in that logo indicate an easily recyclable product (namely, PET #1, HDPE #2 and polypropylene #5)? This has allowed environmental groups to broadly claim plastic recycling is a myth.
We need more honest — and decipherable — labeling. A simple, easy-to-see, color-coded system would increase faith and awareness in recycling.
Third, we need to target environmentalists' disinformation directly. American consumers are not flooding the ocean with trash. Aluminum is recyclable, but it isn't eco-friendly. Environmentalists have only criticisms rather than effective real solutions.
The Luddites of the zero waste movement are comically out of touch. Their one-size-fits-all argument advocates for alternatives to diapers, tampons and condoms along with almost every other personal plastic convenience. These fools shouldn't be winning.
It's not fun being targeted by radical environmentalists who are willing to glue their faces to priceless artwork. It's one of many reasons why we don't disclose which companies, foundations and individuals provide financial support for our education programs.
We're telling uncomfortable truths. Environmentalists hate it. Even some in the plastic industry don't like the idea that some plastics should be treated differently. But denying the "essential" argument drags the entire industry down with that strategy. The grievance industry's playbook is to win where you can and come back later for other incremental gains. The plastics industry should learn from its detractors.
And we welcome any group that wants to join us in raising this issue and conversation to the level of intellectual honesty.