When it comes to "sustainability" what does the general public really know? And who's responsible for this ignorance? Are we in the plastics trade media at least partly responsible for promoting the hype and allowing the industry to be dragged through the mud? I think the consensus of the recent panel I participated in at ANTEC 2011—Sustainability, Greenwashing and the Role of the Plastics Trade Media—was a resounding "yes!"
I believe the first problem is when it comes to the media—even the trade media—the science isn't nearly as interesting as the hype. Let's face it: reading scientific facts is rather boring. Second, reading the science then requires that people weigh the pros and cons of an issue and make scientific, fact-based decisions. People don't want to do that. As our keynote speaker, Dave McIntosh from Fabri-Kal noted, "The issues of sustainability are complex. Everything has an impact, and people don't like to hear that," he said. "People want a 'good vs. bad' scenario so that their choice is easy."
McIntosh also pointed out that there are many "myths" ("biodegradable is always good") and "misconceptions" ("landfills are being clogged with plastics") that cloud the issues surrounding what is truly sustainable. "Both of these statements seem reasonable," he said. "But both are false. The best choices may be different in different situations."
True, there is never just one answer to any complex issue. And often what appears to be the best solution to one perceived "environmental issue" just leads to more problems. Nothing is all good - or all bad. There are consequences to everything. That is why, I believe, the meeting room was packed to "standing room only" just prior to McIntosh's keynote address. The industry wants to know how to offset the hype with science.
As industry trade journalists, I believe it's up to us not just to write about the science in the publications that are read by the plastics industry, but we need to write about our industry in mass media publications. We need to get on their blogs! We need to promote the science whenever we see "hype" in their publications. We need to be proactive in this effort and not wait until cities and states across the country begin banning all things plastic before we speak up!
Let's face it, the general media do not focus on good vs. bad science. They focus on what sells! It's up to all of us, but especially we journalists, to do our homework, know the science and disseminate it. As panelist Salvatore Monte of Kenrich Petrochemicals Inc. noted in his comments, "Good science is key."