Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Earth Day and Plastics

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day and the plastics industry can hold its collective head high. 

The Earth Day Network, the folks behind the official Earth Day 2010 Campaign, has had a variety of events going all week. That reminded me of how, back in the day when green was just a color, my elementary school teacher proclaimed the whole week surrounding Earth Day to be  “Earth Week.”  One activity titled “solar hot dog BBQ” impacted my childhood perception of solar power— but not the way my teacher intended.  The 45-minute cooking time left me with the belief that solar power was ineffective and inefficient. Ah, but my thinking has progressed since then — and, of course, technology has advanced in the 30-plus years since I witnessed the sun-baked frankfurter. 

A lot of environmental technology relies on plastics. According to a recent article, engineers at Princeton University have invented a new process for developing electricity-conducting plastics that could replace costly indium tin oxide, which is currently used in solar panels. The engineers developed a method to “relax the structure of the plastics by treating them with an acid after they were processed into a desired form,” and in doing so produce plastic transistors. According to the article, this new process could substantially increase the availability of solar panels while dramatically reducing the cost – making the solar panel a common addition to practically every house in the U.S.

We’ve done 61 similar posts on this blog that pertain to how plastics contribute to a sustainable world. We have discussed how plastics improve solar cells. We’ve also pointed out how a company is developing an innovative and efficient renewable energy solution via energy-harvesting plastic trees. We have described how the light weight of carbon fiber reinforced plastic is drastically reducing fuel consumption in modern airplanes and automobiles –  more than once. We’ve explained how low-weight, low-cost, high-strength and fatigue-resistant plastic is the material of choice for the huge rotors needed for today’s commercial windmills.  We’ve  blogged about green buildings, and how plastics provide an outstanding range of the properties critical to green building design. Another post explained how a  unique plastic box with a plastic cover enables urban city dwellers to produce gardens that more than double the yield of a conventional garden – and uses half the fertilizer and 40 percent less water. We’ve done too many posts (here’s nearly 40 of them) to list individually on innovative plastics recycling projects and products — from clothing to carpet, frisbees, shopping carts, packaging and more — made from recycled plastics. One post even described how USDA scientists are producing biodegradable plastics from chicken feathers

Our industry annually recognizes environmental innovation and honors sustainable design at our triennial NPE trade show. We have collectively embraced the fact that sustainable thinking is not only good for the Earth, but good business.  

Yesterday, the day before thousands would gather in Washington, D.C. for a rally marking Earth Day, members of the SPI Bioplastics Council flew to the nation’s capital to visit with lawmakers and advocated for increased bioplastics funding through programs such as the USDA’s BioPreferred program.  Bioplastics — plastics that are biodegradable, have biobased content or both — can offer significant growth to the U.S. economy and create thousands of green jobs. While there is significant backing from policymakers for biofuels, a proactive approach to grow the bioplastics industry is also needed.

This year SPI is also working to take our Operation Clean Sweep program global.  Currently involving more than 150 U.S. plastics industry companies, the program strives to keep resin pellets from streams and oceans by assisting resin handling operations in implementing good housekeeping and pellet containment practices. The program will soon be implemented in Great Britain and South Africa and the licensing agreements are royalty-free to speed international adoption.  

Yes. Today is Earth Day and the plastics industry can be proud of its continuing contributions to a sustainable world.

3 Responses to “Earth Day and Plastics”

  1. Interesting article. While I sincerely appreciate that plastics have made many of our advanced technologies possible, I cannot fail to notice that the article omits some of the most troubling forms of plastic — those which are opposed by me and members of the Plastic Pollution Coalition: Single Use Disposable Plastics as well as plastics used to contain food and beverages.

    Single use disposables are the biggest form of litter polluting the planet and are almost completely unnecessary. Bringing our own reusable bags, bottles, and containers with us helps cut this unnecessary source of pollution, as do bans and fees on disposable bags and other containers.

    Plastic food containers, whether disposable or durable, can be hazardous to our health. We all know that plastics can leach the chemicals added to them, especially when subject to heat and rough handling. But how many of us actually know what those chemicals are? Phthalates, BPA, lead, antimicrobials are just some of the chemicals that can leach from certain plastics. But as you know, there are a whole host of chemicals added to affect plastic’s qualities, and manufacturers are not required to disclose any of them.

    U.S. law requires labeling of all ingredients on food products. Unfortunately, the chemicals that can leach from the plastic containers are not included in those ingredient lists. So how can consumers truly make informed decisions? Are your members willing to disclose the “recipes” for their products, or will they forever hide behind claims of proprietary information?

    It’s fine to be proud of your contributions to sustainability, but how about also addressing the ways in which plastics play a part in polluting the planet?

    Beth Terry

  2. Today is indeed Earth Day and the plastics industry needs to take responsibility for the billions of tons of intended single use plastics that it creates daily and stop promoting the myth that food and beverages packaged in plastics are healthy for humans, pets, the environment , our oceans and the planet in general.

    While plastics have many wonderful uses, many plastics contain flame retardants and other chemicals such as Phthalates, BPA, lead, antimicrobials and other harmful chemicals that can leach into foods, beverages and our bodies….

    The game of smoke and mirrors is over. The Greenwashing is over.

  3. Beth & Dianna –

    Thank you for your comments. For decades, our industry has been a leader in finding innovative solutions to a variety of societal problems. Currently, overall sustainability and developing products with an enhanced environmental profile are targets squarely in our crosshairs. We agree that we absolutely must drive waste from the packaging value chain. Frankly, initiatives to cut plastic waste not only yield improved sustainability but are also cost-effective for companies. The packaging industry has been focused on reducing the amount of packaging necessary for a long time. But certainly industry needs to do more. Innovative solutions that augment physical recycling – including waste-to-energy and biobased/biodegradable materials — are becoming more prevalent.

    Food packaging is carefully designed to be effective in preventing food spoilage and contamination while having limited transfer of its component substances to the food it contacts, and it is subject to an extensive premarket approval process at FDA that considers chemistry, toxicology, environmental impact and dietary exposure data as part of a detailed risk assessment. Preventing food spoilage is critical to the environment — food waste has 10 times the environmental impact of packaging waste (and that’s before considering the impact of methane from rotting food).

    Beth, we appreciated your recent Earth Day blog post. Particularly when you wrote, “We are all suffering because of the misuse of the materials.” We couldn’t agree more.

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