The Plastics Scorecard, a new report just released by Clean Production Action, is subtitled, "Evaluating the Chemical Footprint of Plastics," which immediately indicates that this isn't going to be a plastics-friendly report. While the authors, Mark Rossi, PhD, and Ann Black, PhD, make an attempt to sound objective in this "scientific" study—and they never call for the outright banning of all plastics—they make it clear that their study shows that plastics are hazardous to humans and the environment.
The authors begin by noting that the 634 billion pounds of plastics produced in 2012 required "a huge input of chemicals, many of which are chemicals of high concern" (CoHCs ), and they readily admit that reducing the chemical footprint of plastics is a "significant challenge" given that the "plastic pathway from feedstock to polymer to final plastic is littered with CoHCs."
First, the authors acknowledge "fossil fuels as the dominant raw material," but they suggest that there are alternative biobased resources from which resin producers can choose, such as corn, sugar cane, algae, waste methane from landfills, among others. No mention is made of the controversy that surrounds using agricultural food, particularly corn, that is a huge staple on the world's dinner tables in many countries. And once these biobased materials are industrially processed using many resources, how green are they?
Next come the additives that go into polymers, many of which provide specific properties to the resin. The study calls for using "safer chemicals" to provide these needed properties, and the report acknowledges that resin producers are making "significant progress" in this direction. In addition to using safer additives, they want everyone in the manufacturing chain to ask "is [this additive] necessary?" and provide the example of flame retardants in children's nap mats. "Is a flame retardant in nap mats even necessary?" That's a good question! But it is one that even if the answer is "NO!," it wouldn't matter because government regulations require flame retardants to be added to a whole slew of children's products, clothing and furniture.
Defy these government regulations and the Consumer Protection Agency will be on your doorstep to hand out a hefty fine. When the government makes regulations with the intent to protect everyone from everything that could pose a danger to human health and safety, you can bet there will be myriad consequences.
Obviously the answer, as the report points out, is not to use CoHCs at all. However, if the chemical additive is one that enhances the physical properties of the plastic to make it safer to use from a strength standpoint, do companies make the choice not to use it and risk consumer injury? This is where a cost/benefit analysis has to be done. Ultimately is there a right decision when there is no good decision?
Additionally, as the authors of the report point out, "As companies move away from well-known CoHCs, it will drive down the percentage of CoHCs in products. What will remain are questions around the hazard profiles of the alternatives as well as the small amounts of CoHCs in products, like residual BPA monomer. In other words, there will never be completely risk-free alternatives in plastic additives.
The report calls for "green chemistry" solutions. The only truly green chemistry I know of offhand is photosynthesis. Anything that involves industrial processing is always going to have some level of risk. It's the law of unintended consequences. Find a solution for one problem—like CoHCs in plastics and almost every other product that is industrially processed including wood products, food, livestock production, agriculture, clothing, shoes, and you can go on through the lists of millions of products processed or manufactured every day for human use or consumption—and you will create three more problems in its place.
Put flame retardant in children's pajamas, nap mats, couches, mattresses, and polyurethane padding to prevent a few deaths from fire each year, and scientists will see the rise of certain cancers or other health issues caused by flame retardants. It is literally impossible to foresee every risk or to predict every consequence of every solution to the problems of modern-day life.
The one phrase with which I agree wholeheartedly is on page 43 in the conclusion: "Polymers are a bedrock of nature and the human economy . . ." The authors then challenge the industry to make "plastics that are safer for humanity and the environment." Can we eliminate all the risks? Are life and the environment 100% safe from all hazards? And at what cost do we relinquish technological advancements to ensure this 100% safety? Do we sacrifice the rewards of technological advancements for the small risks they may present?
Maybe we need to answer those questions first before we throw the baby out with the bath water.