Thursday, November 1st, 2012

For Anti-Plastics Activists, Facts Don’t Matter; Sowing Fear Does


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.

4 Responses to “For Anti-Plastics Activists, Facts Don’t Matter; Sowing Fear Does”

  1. Hi Rob

    I have exactly the same problems with product design – salespeople worried senseless that a polypropylene chair back will lead customers to an early, painful grave.

    What truly amazes me though is that the same people feel nothing for doing things that truly are life threatening, like running a red traffic light.

    Somewhere along the line did common sense simply get thrown out the window?

    I’m not in favour of the US’s litigious society but I think in this case it would be appropriate. Moreover, a public apology.

  2. Ahh, yes, but you are preaching to the choir here. The Plastics Industry needs to be informing the public of the truth about plastics. We need to counteract with tweets and blogs and interviews and postings of our own. I searched here but there is no share link for facebook or twitter or else where to” like” and share your rebuttal… I feel that the Plastics Industry needs to market the goodness of Plastics. We should develop a social media marketing plan to inform the public of the goodness of plastics. Just an added note, vegan shoes are made of snythetic (aka plastic) materials to avoid using animals (aka leather) .
    Just my 2-cents worth.

  3. Hi Ian, and thanks for your comments.
    My Dad often said common sense is an oxymoron; If anything it’s rare, not common. There were nearly 33,000 deaths in traffic accidents in the U.S. in 2010—and that’s the fewest since 1950, when there were far fewer cars on the road. Where’s the outrage and concern over that? Nowhere to be seen: They run red lights.
    In the anti-plastics activists, a subset of the anti-science community, we find a group that is firmly irrational. It is very hard to deal with anyone who deeply believes something irrational. When you present rational evidence that counters their beliefs, they flatly deny the legitimacy of what you are saying. In the case of plastics, they usually say all the many studies done by scientists were done by “the industry”, and ominous music swells up in their minds as they say those words.
    A public apology is in order, but don’t hold your breath waiting. Confronted with scientific evidence, the anti-science activists double down firmer than ever. What we can do, as the response following yours says, is get the word out on the goodness, the many benefits, of plastics. That is what we’re doing with this blog, and we encourage others to do the same.

  4. Your comments are worth way more than two cents. We know we’re preaching to the choir, at least for the most part, however our sermon is precisely what you suggest: Choir, sing louder so everyone can hear you.
    To the right of our blog posts is a social media box with a white plus sign in an orange box. Mouse over it and you see icons of the most popular social media sites. By all means, tweet, message, and blog the positive info.
    And thank you for making me aware that what’s in the box is not apparent. We’ll make that better.
    We, the staff and members of SPI, fully agree that we need to market the goodness of plastics, and that social media is a great way to do it. This blog is doing that, and SPI is working right now to expand not only our social media outreach but also to encourage everyone in the industry to get active on social media. We have a lot of good things to say, and every one of us should feel free to say them.
    I was not aware that vegan shoes are made of plastics. Got a chuckle out of that one.
    Thanks for your comments, and please pass along the good news on plastics.

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