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#216 - Plastics -- Part 1: Some Hidden Hazards Of A Plastic World, 15-Jan-1991

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

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.]

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

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


Descriptor terms: society of the plastics industry; larry thomas;
opinion surveys; greenwashing; workers; occupational safety and health;
biodegradable; deborah wallace; nancy skinner; barry commoner; tom
webster; anita sadun; jeanne wirka;