Solving the Corporate Lies About Plastics

In the past few years, the contradiction of both a miracle of plastic and a threat to society has become an aspiration. There are countless stories in the media and popular culture about our horrific relationship with plastics, centered on our addiction and dependence.

However, this way of framing the problem actually serves to maintain it. Plastics are plural. There are thousands of plastics, each with different physical properties, including not only ductility or durability, but also toxicity. Combining plastics with both beneficial and harmful characteristics into a single entity, the two-sided narrative holds that the two sides can never be separated. By blaming all of us for our reliance on plastics, questions of corporate responsibility and disproportionate toxic risks are avoided. Ultimately, the plastic paradox conveys a sense of inevitability that the industry can tap into.

“Let’s talk about plastic for real” is the title of a campaign launched in October 2020 by the Danish Plastics Federation, consisting of short videos with plastic reality-check messages: “Without plastic . . . will use more fuel”; “No plastic. . . no bike helmet.” Punchline: “Frankly, we need plastic where it makes sense. But the world without , , creates more problems than it solves. The US-based plastics industry association regularly tweets and blogs similar messages. For example, one blog post called tackling plastic litter “overly simplistic,” “bizarre,” and “impractical . . . like when a child proposes that the solution to global warming is to eliminate cars.”

While this line of reasoning is “overly simplistic”, the industry is correct in some ways. Plastics cannot be neatly separated into different plethora of social value: essential versus useless, or desirable versus toxic. Many plastics are actually essential to health and safety, transportation and connectivity, yet they are also toxic and wasteful. There is no easy solution to such a complex problem. However, we can prevent the plastic crisis from spiraling out of control.

Many plastic products can and should be banned or replaced to protect health, the environment and the climate. Policy makers, researchers, and activists call for eliminating or replacing the production of toxic plastic products (to protect health), single-use plastics (to stop the plastic waste crisis), and virgin (fossil fuel-based) plastics. The focus is on the need. (to address the climate crisis). Such proposals involve many obstacles and dilemmas, as discussed in my book, but reducing harmful plastic production is not an unrealistic goal. On the contrary, it is both possible and necessary. An important start is to interrogate corporate half-truths as well as untruths.

The industry’s “realistic versus impractical” narrative is a practical twist on a related narrative that has long been popular: “reality versus fiction”, used to make claims about the benefits and non-toxicity of plastics. Since the beginning of the plastic era, the industry has tirelessly promoted the essential and desirable characteristics of plastic products by negating their harmful effects. More than a century ago the discovery of synthetic plastics was seen as a miracle, saving animals in place of ivory and tortoiseshell, and natural resources replacing wood, silk and glass.

Most importantly for the capitalist system, plastics were cheap. After World War II, new plastic household products entered the market, promoting the development of large-scale consumer society. Increasingly, the industry expanded its reach to building materials, shopping bags, medical devices, toys, electronics, water bottles and food packaging, among other markets. People were sold not only on plastic but also on the idea of ​​disposables.

Yet the public has never been completely sold on plastic. From the very beginning, labor, consumer and environmental groups have questioned their production and use. In fact, the petrochemical and plastics industries have often been accused of using the playbook from Big Tobacco by creating doubts and uncertainty about the dangers of their products. I wish I could say that these allegations are exaggerated, or simplify a more complicated situation; But if anything, they are underestimated.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, American and European petrochemical industries conspired to hide the scientific link between vinyl chloride, cancer, and other diseases in order to protect their markets. News about vinyl chloride and cancer emerged in 1974, causing public alarm and swift regulation, but it took decades for researchers and lawyers to expose corporate lies and cover-ups. Meanwhile, the industry learned how to anticipate regulations, refining its “cheating and denial” strategy in subsequent controversies over carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting plastics.

Beyond the high-stakes battle over the truth, corporations often ignore toxicity issues altogether, especially given that the burden of proof for harm rests on communities, not corporations. Despite decades of environmental justice struggles around the world, toxic threats from plastics are disproportionately located in minority, low-income and working-class communities. In Canada, my home country, the indigenous Amjivanang First Nation, is located next to several toxic polluting petrochemical plants in the “Chemical Valley” in Sarnia, Ontario, and local residents have reported several diseases.

This parallels the infamous case of “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, 85 miles of former plantation land along the Mississippi River with high concentrations of petrochemical facilities and oil refineries located close to rural Black residential communities. Indeed, around the world there are hundreds of “cancer villages” and cancer groups concerned with plastic production, incineration and disposal. Despite the risks and negative social and environmental impacts, corporations across the plastics value chain will implement whatever strategies they can to create, protect and expand plastics markets.

Not surprisingly, corporations refuse to take the blame for the plastics crisis. Instead, they pass it along like a hot potato in the supply chain. And in the end, the blame falls back on the public. As one plastics executive put it, “I think we still need to do a lot of work to make people aware that, ultimately, if a plastic bag is on the street, it’s because someone left it there.” Is.”

Still, they carry on the story of saving the world from plastic, which helps justify the existence of a toxic and polluting industry. On balance, they argue, the benefits of plastic outweigh the problems. Recycling continues to be a big crime based on societal myths perpetuated by the industry. There is also a term for the practice of continuing to dispose of discarded items in the recycling bin, despite knowing that they will likely burn or get dumped: this is called “desire cycling”.

[Image: courtesy Polity Press]

I am not suggesting that corporations aim to pollute the environment or poison people. Their aim is simply to maximize profits by creating, protecting and expanding markets, regardless of the toxic consequences. But, separating objectives from results is a retreat in the imagination. So yes, as the Danish Plastics Federation says, let’s talk about plastics for real.

Copyright © Alice Mah 2022. excerpt, with permission, from Plastic Unlimited By Alice Mah, Published by Politi Press.

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