If all goes well for the U.S. plastics industry, annual production will grow from its present 55 billion pounds per year to 76 billion pounds per year by the end of this century. However, all may not go so well. Last year the Society of the Plastics Industry (a trade group) invited its members, the plastics manufacturers, to a strategic planning session with a letter that began as follows: "The image of plastics among consumers is deteriorating at an alarmingly fast pace. Opinion research experts tell us that it has plummeted so far and so fast, in fact, that we are approaching a `point of no return.' Public opinion polls during the '80s show that an increasing percentage of the general public believes plastics are harmful to health and the environment. That percentage rose sharply from 56 percent in 1988 to 72 percent in 1989. At this rate, we will soon reach a point from which it will be impossible to recover our credibility." The letter was signed by Larry Thomas, president of the Society of the Plastics Industry. [His phone is (202) 371-5222.] That the invitation had to be issued at all is a tribute to the successes of thousands of grass-roots groups across the country that have worked to discourage unnecessary plastic packaging and other environmentally damaging doodads like disposable flashlights, cigarette lighters, and cameras.
The goal of the Society's strategic planning meeting (held January 15, 1990) was "to undertake a major program of unprecedented proportions to reverse this fast-moving tidal wave of growing negative public perception.... [and] to demonstrate the critical importance of plastic products and their contributions to environmental progress. It is estimated that this effort will cost upwards of $50 million per year for the next three years," Mr. Thomas wrote.
Now the plastics industry's PR campaign of unprecedented proportions is under way. Backed by the industry's war chest, plastics are being sold to the public with aggressive greenwash and a renewed disregard for the truth. Judy Christrup, writing in Greenpeace Magazine, cites full-page newspaper ads by the makers of Glad garbage bags--"Team up with Glad for a safer environment"--and ads by other companies peddling "degradable" plastics "for a cleaner environment." Christrup points out that calling plastics "environmentally safe" is simply fraudulent. From the extraction of raw materials (natural gas and petroleum), through the production of resins (the building blocks from which particular plastics are made--propylene, phenol, ethylene, polystyrene, and benzene), to the manufacture of end products, use, and final disposal in a dump or incinerator somewhere, plastics are an environmental affliction.
A quick litany of environmental ills caused by plastics must include:
Workers in (and people living near) petroleum refineries and some types of plastic resin factories run an increased risk of getting various kinds of cancer.
Fires in homes and commercial buildings kill nearly 5000 Americans each year, many of them because of the toxic smoke created by burning plastics. This hazard, unique to plastics, has been consistently played down by the plastics industry (and by those who regulate such matters) since it first appeared in the 1960s.
More than a million seabirds and approximately 100,000 sea mammals die each year after ingesting, or becoming entangled in, plastic debris. Less deadly, but economically damaging to the tourist industry is plastic litter on beaches. One 3-hour cleanup of a 157-mile stretch of beach in Texas in 1987 collected 31,773 plastic bags, 30,295 plastic bottles, 15,631 plastic six-pack rings, 28,540 plastic lids, 1914 disposable diapers, 1040 tampon applicators, and 7460 milk jugs.
A significant percentage of municipal solid waste is plastics: 7% of garbage by weight, and 18% to 30% by volume, is plastics, which physically disintegrate very slowly. In an incinerator, burning plastic releases hydrochloric acid which degrades the incinerator rapidly, releases chlorine which is then available to form dioxins, and releases toxic metals that were added to the plastics to give them color or stiffness or some other desirable characteristic.
Lastly, as we make final preparations to wage allout war to protect our Saudi oil connection, it seems fitting to reflect on the hidden costs of our national addiction to petroleum-based plastics, most of which are unnecessary, and are also more toxic and environmentally destructive than the natural materials they have replaced.
When faced with arguments why plastics should be phased out, deception and distortion are the standard modes of communication for the plastics industry. Depending on who they're talking to, they want to have it both ways: they say, on the one hand, that plastic liners beneath a landfill will last forever and will thus protect the environment in perpetuity against the toxic metals in landfill leachate; on the other hand, they want us to believe that plastic garbage bags are "biodegradable" and will break down in the environment and be recycled by nature until there's nothing left.
Unfortunately for the environment, both these claims are false. No plastic--by its very nature--can maintain its structural integrity forever. As we will see next week, all landfill liners will eventually come apart spontaneously--even if there are no chemicals working to degrade them. And yet no plastic--again, because of its fundamental nature--can be degraded by microorganisms and thus be totally "biodegraded" and reincorporated into nature. What actually happens to plastics as time passes is something in between complete preservation of structure and complete loss of structure. All plastics sooner or later break down into small pieces, leaving plastic chunks or plastic dust as a residue. These plastic chunks and dust are not biodegradable; their molecular structure is too large for microorganisms to consume. In this fundamental sense no plastics are biodegradable and anyone who advertises that their plastic is biodegradable is defrauding the public. (For a scientific discussion of this aspect of plastics, see the publication by Anita Sadun and others, cited below.) [Continued next week.]
Get: Jeanne Wirka, WRAPPED IN PLASTICS; THE ENVIRONMENTAL CASE FOR REDUCING PLASTICS PACKAGING (Washington, DC: Environmental Action Foundation [1525 New Hampshire Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20036; (202) 745-4870], 1988). 159 pgs. $10.00. Contains good information about the plastics manufacturing industry, including, in Appendix B, a list of toxic materials that are added to plastics for various purposes. Environmental Action also maintains a computerized database called State Action on Packaging and Source Reduction, much of it relevant to antiplastics activists. The database is updated every few months; a complete printout of the database currently describes 57 pieces of legislation (some proposed, some already passed, and some already defeated but nevertheless containing good ideas); the entire printout usually costs $20.00 but they offer discounts to grassroots groups and to those who can't afford the full price. Contains short descriptions of each law, plus names of people to contact who can send you the entire text of the law and tell you its story.
Anita Glazer Sadun, Thomas F. Webster, and Barry Commoner, BREAKING DOWN THE DEGRADABLE PLASTICS SCAM (Flushing, NY: Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, 1990); available from: Greenpeace Action, 1436 U Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009; phone (202) 462-1177. 97 pgs. They ask a $5.00 donation from citizen activists and non-profits, $15.00 from businesses, professionals, and public agencies.
Nancy Skinner's relatively new organization, Local Solutions to Global Pollution, Studio A, 2121 Bonar St., Berkeley, CA 94702; phone (415) 540-8843; fax: (415) 540-4898, can provide you with many useful bundles of information on plastics and packaging, including model local ordinances; arguments and tactics of the plastics industry with rebuttals by environmentalists; testimony for public hearings, and more.
A stage of plastics manufacturing that creates major amounts of
hazardous waste, but which is often overlooked, is oil and gas
production--the raw materials for making plastics. An important
new coalition has formed to address these specific wastes:
National Citizens' Network on Oil and Gas Wastes; contact Chris
Shuey at Southwest Research and Information Center, P.O. Box
4524, Albuquerque, NM 87106; phone (505) 262-1862; or Sue
Libenson, Alaska Center for the Environment, 519 West 8th Avenue
-#201, Anchorage, AK 99501; phone (907) 274-3621. An
authoritative new book on the dangers of plastics in fires is
Deborah Wallace's, IN THE MOUTH OF THE DRAGON (Garden City Park,
NY: Avery Publishing Group [120 Old Broadway, Garden City Park,
NY 11040; phone (516) 741-2155], 1990). $17.95.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: society of the plastics industry; larry thomas; opinion surveys; glad; greenwash; workers; occupational safety and health; biodegradable; deborah wallace; nancy skinner; barry commoner; thomas webster; anita sadun; jeanne wirka;