Fear of plastics, and what to do about it

I typically begin my monthly column with a reminder that there are no toxic plastics. The material's negative public image is a result of plastics being seen as corporatevariable and science-based. This has led to bag bans and other restrictions, often based on the visible presence of litter. But the belief that plastics are toxic in and of themselves has become mainstream, as seen in CNN’s reporting that McDonald’s will stop using plastics straws in the UK and Ireland. No matter that paper substitutes are bonded with plastic. No matter that anything reusable risks bacterial contamination. Plastics are bad for us, and the CNN article included repetition of the “more plastic than fish by 2050” meme, and the lead illustration (plus a 1.5-minute video) reinforces the image of fish eating the plastic and us eating the fish and somehow getting poisoned in the process. 

McDonald's plastic straw ban
Photo courtesy Allan Griff.

The corporate origin of plastics is clear enough but easily defensible. Large corporations bring us efficiencies of scale that otherwise would be impossible. They carry their problems, to be sure, but until I see some better and more viable way to get low prices and ample supply of quality products to consumers, I’ll support their existence as well as their serious regulation in a truly competitive atmosphere. 

Variable refers to the myriad forms and formulations of our materials. They are not seen as “natural,” like paper, metal, glass or wood. No matter that there are many metals and woods—to the public, iron is iron and pine is pine. No matter that “natural” includes such evils as snake venom, poisonous mushrooms and all the bad bacteria and viruses that afflict us, and that synthetics are often our remedies. Plastics are made by people, and people can’t be trusted to have all humankind at heart while they are driven to make profits, which is not a dirty word, by the way, but represents interest on borrowed money, as I learned in high school. (Speculation and accumulation are relevant topics but too much to get into here.)

We can do something about variable by more standardization of our virgin resins as we’ve done with recycle codes, so people can know that PE 1A meets certain standards, PE 1B meets others and so forth, and that suppliers really adhere to those standards (meaning serious enforcement). The public doesn’t have to know in detail what the standards are, as long as we feel there is some predictability to the materials, that they can’t be altered at will and that the standardized products are harmless. Not easy, but possible.

It’s the science-based connection that raises the most trouble. People are uncomfortable with science in general and chemistry in particular, as science challenges the impossible. There are basic laws and law-abiding reasons for everything—we may not know them all and may never know them all, but there are no miracles. The impossible is . . . impossible.

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