Is the Plastic Industry the New Tobacco Industry?

In the 1980s and 1990s Big Tobacco, mostly led by Philip Morris, spent millions of dollars trying to stop two things they were convinced would ruin their business: regulation of smoking and how cigarettes are marketed, and the dissemination of information about the health effects of smoking. Today, a similar story is playing out around another everyday sort of product mainstream America has been led to believe is relatively harmless: plastic. In particular disposable plastics (bottled water, straws, and so forth) and plastic food packaging.

plastic bagsMary Anne Enriquez

When the tobacco industry wanted to gain control over the messages the public was receiving about smoking, it set up a dummy nonprofit called the Center for Consumer Freedom, run by notorious lobbyist Richard Berman. Berman launched the Center for Consumer Freedom with a $600,000 “donation” from Philip Morris; the company continued to make charitable donations to CCF throughout the 1990s, funneling 49 to 79 percent of its charitable funding to the Center between 1995 and 1998. The CCF took that money and turned it into ad campaigns about the “right to smoke” and push polls aimed at “proving” that Americans didn’t want smoking regulated.

Flash forward a decade and the Center for Consumer Freedom has a new consumer product to protect: plastic. Like Big Tobacco, Big Plastic is at a turning point: Although its deep pockets have been able to stave off statewide or nationwide regulation thus far, it is in danger of losing its grip. In California, when a state ban on plastic bags was narrowly voted down thanks in large part to the millions spent by the ACC and various plastic bag manufacturers in the state, counties and cities quickly took matters into their own hands and began passing local bills. Following in the footsteps of San Francisco, the cities of Santa Monica, Long Beach, San Jose, and Calabasas all passed bans in the year following the defeat of the state ban, as did Los Angeles and Marin counties. Now state bag bans are up for a vote in Oregon and Vermont, the California ban is back on the docket, and major county bans are being hotly debated in Hawaii. At the same time, more and more information is coming out about the toxicity of the few chemicals known to be used in plastic. Bisphenol A (BPA), pthalates, and dioxins have all made headlines as toxic villains in the past few years, and pressure is rising for national and state legislators to regulate them for consumer safety. The rest of the chemicals used in most plastic materials are kept hidden from consumers as “trade secrets.”

In a desperate attempt to stop the flow of information about the environmental and public health impacts of plastic, and thus to squelch any regulatory attempts, the plastic industry is taking a few pages from the Philip Morris playbook. In the last several months, lawsuits have been filed against all of the cities and counties passing bans in California. Every time a ban passes, the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, a nonprofit that counts several plastic bag manufacturers as members (although it refuses to disclose which ones) sues the county or city, typically to require an Environmental Impact Report. This tactic worked with earlier bans that solely banned plastic (the increased use of paper bags was an environmental problem), but modern bans are aimed at all single-use bags, making it tougher for the lawsuits to stick. Plastic bag manufacturers have also ganged up to sue a small reusable bag maker in Chico, CA (ChicoBag), claiming “false advertising” because the company includes facts about the environmental impact of plastic bags on its website, and filing the suit in North Carolina to avoid California’s corporate bullying laws.

On the health front, the industry is working to push de minimis clauses on BPA legislation, which would allow products to sport the “BPA-free” label if they have below a certain amount of BPA in them; this is problematic with any toxic chemical, but it is especially so with BPA given that it has been proven to cause health problems even at doses lower than the amount currently deemed “safe” by the EPA and the FDA; this is particularly true of fetuses in utero, which have been proven to suffer developmental damage as a result of even very low exposure to BPA.

And in the midst of it all, the Center for Consumer Freedom is trying to keep Americans focused on plastic bags and, most importantly of course, their right to them. The CCF has begun running ads calling into question the safety of reusable bags, and releasing push polls that claim Americans love their plastic bags and don’t want to see their right to plastic infringed upon. When the Center for Environmental Health followed up on the CCF’s claims that “most” reusable bags had lead and bacteria in them, they found only two bags with dangerous levels – one type was made out of recycled plastic, the other had a plastic liner.

Big Plastic’s tactics go a giant step further than Big Tobacco’s in one key way: The plastic industry has successfully managed to use environmental messaging to promote an activity that is 100 % negative for the environment, the continued use and disposal of throwaway plastics. There are several examples of this, but the most insidious are the industry’s use of recycling as a justification for the continued use of disposable plastics, and its sponsorship of various research expeditions and conferences around ocean plastic pollution (which it euphemistically calls “marine debris”).

Recycling is fantastic for paper, cardboard, aluminum and glass. For plastic, the case is harder to make. Oftentimes, plastic can only be downcycled (turned into another type of product) not recycled, which means that unlike, say, glass recycling, plastic recycling in most instances does not stem the need for virgin plastic. There’s also little market for recycled plastic goods; one recycler in Oregon recently told the local paper that they’re sitting on two years worth of old plastic they’ve picked up that nobody wants. According to the EPA, only 9% of U.S. plastic packaging is recycled. Much of the used plastics picked up in the U.S. and Western Europe is shipped to China, where workers are subjected to various toxics in the course of breaking down and, in many cases, incinerating the stuff to make new materials. Unfortunately, by tapping into the environmental movement’s historic love of recycling, the industry has managed to spin a tale of plastic recycling that all but eliminates the impact of disposable plastic goods.

Similarly, by supporting projects like Project Kaisei, which is researching the effects of garbage on the ocean, and Earth911, a website that provides environmental information about various topics, including plastic, the industry has managed to associate itself with the very people who should be railing against it. In this way it has managed to largely control and manipulate the stream of information reaching the public. The latest instance of this is the American Chemistry Council‘s sponsorship of the largest international conference on ocean plastic pollution, happening this week in Honolulu. Convened by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the 5th International Marine Debris Conference is filled with panels focused on various aspects of plastic pollution. Yet, two of its largest sponsors are the American Chemistry Council and Coca Cola, and low and behold, the public commitments coming out of the conference are filled with the terms “marine debris” or “marine litter,” and no mention of plastic at all.

At the end of the day, this is a story that should piss off every consumer. Whether you consider yourself an environmentalist or not is irrelevant. The fact is that a group of companies are producing products that contain known carcinogens and other toxics and they are making every effort and sparing no expense to manipulate that information, hide it, discredit the researchers producing it, and stop any regulation of the chemicals. They are effectively robbing consumers of the very freedom they purport to support, by endeavoring to keep important information out of the public’s hands. That is a crime and it ought to be stopped.

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