When critics say plastics should be banned, taxed or replaced, we frequently hear people in the industry respond by saying the critics need to listen to the science.
Last week science responded — or, actually it was Science magazine. And it wasn't with the message that the industry wanted to hear.
Science, the peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published a special issue titled "Our Plastics Dilemma." The editors took an in-depth look at sustainability issues and concluded that "the inherent properties" of plastics "that make them useful in such a wide variety of applications also make them a serious environmental threat."
"As for much new technology, their development and proliferation occurred with little consideration for their impacts, but now it's impossible to deny their dark side as we confront a rapidly growing plastic pollution problem," Senior Editor Jesse Smith wrote.
In a policy forum, the magazine called for a binding global agreement to address the life cycle of plastics. That includes phasing out most virgin plastics production by 2040.
"Exemptions should only be granted for materials like medical supplies for which no safe and nonplastic alternatives exist," the authors wrote.
Let that sink in. Processors that make durable products probably tune out a lot of the stories that they hear about plastics and the environment, thinking that just applies to the folks making single-use products. But phasing out most virgin resin production in less than 20 years would definitely have an impact on more than the foodservice and packaging sectors.
Reducing production and consumption of virgin plastics "would send the clearest signal from governments to producers, consumers and others along the plastics value chain," the magazine wrote. "It would signal that manufacturers need to enhance their efforts toward sustainability of plastics considerably, that they will need to produce less of it, and that innovation and safety improvements offer substantial new market opportunities.
"The goal would also prevent GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions by discouraging further investments in expanding plastics production capacities. Given the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the production and consumption targets should be aligned accordingly."
The natural counterargument to this proposal is that there are many, many applications where plastics are already reducing GHG emissions. Phasing out plastics, or encouraging alternative materials that have larger carbon footprints, would be counterproductive.
Joshua Baca, the American Chemistry Council's vice president of plastics, noted in response to the Science proposal: "Capping plastic production would lead to forced alternatives, and policymakers need to consider not only the lost benefits plastics provide, but also the environmental impacts of those alternatives."
Other big-picture goals in the Science report include facilitating the safe circularity of plastics and eliminating plastic pollution in the environment. Those are ambitious and appropriate goals, and the plastics industry is already on board. Perhaps if we were seeing more rapid progress in those areas, we wouldn't also see a call to phase out most virgin resin production.
It's a sad commentary on the reputation and environmental performance to date that we even need to note that phasing out plastics should not be on the table.
Don Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of The Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.