Feature

Who’ll stand up for plastics?

H ere's a question: From a public relations point of view, is plastic in danger of becoming the new tobacco?


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January 1, 2008 by Mark Stephen, associate editor



Here’s a question: From a public relations point of view, is plastic in danger of becoming the new tobacco?

A quick troll through the Internet seems to confirm plastic’s unpopularity. A website called www.lifewithoutplastic.com frets about the “health hazards and environmental damage caused by plastic.” The homepage of another website is even more alarmist, warning “plastics is one of the major toxic pollutants of our time…[and] plays the villain right from the stage of its production.” After declaring that working in a plastics production facility can lead to cancer, it concludes by urging its readers to “say ‘no’ to plastic whenever and wherever you can.”

All around us, it seems the bait is being taken. At an outdoor rally in Toronto in November, for example, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government was urged to legislate against polycarbonate baby bottles containing the chemical bisphenol A. The Premier quickly announced the formation of a “scientific panel” to consider the issue. In early December, Vancouver-based retailer Mountain Equipment Coop pulled bisphenol A products from its shelves. (Canadian Plastics will explore the bisphenol A controversy in an upcoming issue.)

In the U.S., Wal-Mart, Sears, Kmart and Target stores have all announced plans to either reduce or phase out entirely the amount of PVC in their packaging and products, in the wake of bad press surrounding recalls of Chinese-made plastic toys.

Globally, meanwhile, anti-plastic sentiment is finding focus around plastic shopping bags. News from England that London could soon ban plastic shopping bags follows similar bans or “plastaxes” in San Francisco, Dacca, Bangladesh…and Leaf Rapids, Man., which became North America’s first plastic shopping bag-free zone last April.

To anyone who has bothered to actually look at the raw scientific data, it’s obvious these bans and product recalls are the result of unfounded fears based on outright misinformation. Plastic bags, for example, are actually less environmentally harmful than their paper counterparts — but you wouldn’t know it, because the paper industry has spent millions of dollars over the past few years to convince regulators, politicians and the broader public that plastic is the real villain.

To date, the plastics industry has been slow to respond to this barrage, with one or two praiseworthy exceptions. A grass-roots organization of plastics manufacturers in California called the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling is challenging plastic bag bans in parts of that state; and a US$2.5 million public education campaign and recycling initiative was launched last month by the plastics division of Arlington, Va.-based American Chemistry Council. What’s really needed, though, is a concerted effort by industry organizations like the SPI to spearhead a well-funded, professional campaign to fight anti-plastics legislation and rebut false claims made by environmentalists.

The fact is plastic performs tasks no other materials can perform and provides consumers with products and services no other materials can provide. And as with most other industries, plastics is doing its fair share — and then some — to become “greener.”

As environmental awareness increases, and new public policies are enacted in response, it’s important we not let the plastics industry be made a scapegoat.

Tobacco causes cancer; plastic doesn’t. It’s time more people were made aware of this.

mstephen@canplastics.com