Thursday, November 1st, 2012
Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. — Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Plastiphobia may not be in psychology textbooks, but it exists and it’s contagious. Phobia is defined as “Extreme and irrational fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation.” It’s been said all fears spring from fear of the unknown. Accordingly, what plastiphobics say about plastics shows little knowledge of plastics, but abundant fear of plastics none the less.
I was recently referred to an article on the website of Rodale Inc., publisher of health and wellness magazines such as Prevention and Organic Gardening, and books including An Inconvenient Truth and The South Beach Diet. The article, “5 Disturbing Facts about Plastic,” is an interview with the author of a recently released book.
The author is Beth Terry, owner of the blogsite “My Plastic-Free Life.” Her book is “Plastic-Free: How I kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, a practical guide to ridding your life—and the planet—of plastic.” The blogsite opens by stating, “Think we can’t live without plastic? Think again.” Terry’s mission is clear.
Written by Emily Main, Rodale’s online editor, the interview mostly repeats the content of Terry’s blog, and perhaps the book that I haven’t read. Let’s look at those disturbing ‘facts’:
The first of the five ‘facts’ begins, “We don’t know everything that’s in plastic—and neither do food companies.” Terry’s focus is on the chemicals added to plastic resin for performance, processing, and appearance purposes. “And all those mixtures are protected as trade secrets, Terry adds, that not even food manufacturers can find out.”
The materials that can be used to make food packaging are not a secret. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s “Inventory of Effective Food Contact Substance (FCS) Notifications” is an online database of food contact substances demonstrated to be safe for their intended use. But activists will tell you the FDA is in the pocket of industry. Try speaking with people who make food and medical packaging. They will tell you the FDA’s rules and standards are firm, and violating them will jeopardize their businesses. Never use anything not listed in the FCS.
‘Fact’ #2 begins, “Plastic isn’t good for vegetarians. Of the thousands of possible chemicals added to plastics, some are known to be toxic — for instance, the neurotoxin lead and the carcinogen cadmium are frequently added to vinyl products to protect them from UV damage…”
No U.S. manufacturer of vinyl materials adds lead to its products. The European Union has banned lead totally. Cadmium has not been used in packaging material for at least 30 years. It is classed as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA says, “Cadmium levels in some foods can be increased by the application of phosphate fertilizers or sewage sludge to farm fields.” No mention is made of food packaging.
Looping back to plastics not being good for vegetarians, Terry again focuses on additives: “And some are just gross. Like chicken fat. Terry says plastic bag manufacturers sometimes add chicken fat to the exterior of plastic bags to make them more slippery. Animal fats are also added to other plastic products to prevent them from sticking to metal machinery.”
One of the largest plastic bag manufacturers in the U.S. says flatly that bag makers never use external fat in the manufacturing process to make the bag surface slipperier. In fairness, Terry’s misunderstanding could be that materials makers may use fatty acids to make plastic material flow better during processing. Fat, animal or vegetable, can be the source of fatty acids, which when converted and purified are used in many industries—as chemicals.
Fear not vegetarians: For a number of reasons, one of which is your preferences, the source of fatty acids used in packaging is vegetable, for example corn and soy. When used those fatty acids are virtually the same as supermarket vegetable oil .
Fact #3 states, “It <plastic> causes acne. At least, it does in dogs and cats.” I did not research that, but the subject is plastic petfood dishes. Fact #4: “Plastic kills more than just birds and sea turtles.” All of us are concerned about animals ingesting plastic. However, the reason for plastic items being loose in the environment is littering. Proper disposal, e.g. recycling can solve that.
‘Fact’ #5 addresses disposal: “I don’t want people to stop recycling, because we have to do something with the plastic we end up with,” Terry says. But, “it’s not the answer to our plastic problem.” Recycling is not THE answer, but it must be part of the solution. However, when your mission is to get rid of plastics entirely, recycling gets very slight, arguably token, attention.
What dominates on most environmentalist websites is damning and banning all plastic products. Actual facts about, for example, plastic shopping bags—smaller environmental footprint than paper bags, won’t breed harmful bacteria as “reusable” bags can,
full recyclability—don’t square with activists’ agendas, so they are ignored.
With global population having doubled to a bit over 7 billion since only 1968, and global resources of the globe having not increased at all, it’s past time we realize that everything should be recycled, including plastics. Being flexible, lightweight, strong, economical and eminently recyclable, plastics are often the best choice to meet the needs of a growing population. If you wonder why this isn’t known, the answer may lie in memes.
Memes are those ideas or behaviors that spread from person to person within a culture. Today, the Internet sends memes such as the alleged ‘facts’ in the Rodale article around the world in seconds. Those memes are not new. They have been passed around enough that many people now assume they are true. They are presented in a way that stokes fear in a reader. The reader then passes it to friends who pass it to friends and, like a virus it spreads.
The Rodale website provides no way to reply or comment on the article, and even if it did the pseudo-facts are already circulating. This article is one of many that fuel plastiphobia, which one day will be recognized as the obstacle to progress that it is.