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7 Dangerous Lies About Plastic

Big Plastic is big money and survives regulatory scrutiny by creating big spin. Here's what you need to know.
 
 
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Photo Credit: NOAA Photo Library: fish1968 by LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps.

 
 
 
 

To receive a Ph.D in industrial chemistry in the United States, no American university requires candidates to take even a single toxicology class as part of their course work. We churn out new chemists with the divine power to manipulate the very structure of nature itself, without teaching them the divine wisdom of how to wield that power.

Nearly everything we consume or even interact with these days is made of plastic. The industry that produces plastic, largely represented by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), has an annual budget of over $120 million to protect its interests. But as the plague of plastic that wreaks havoc on our environment slowly gains the attention of policymakers, concerned citizens and the media, the makers of plastic resins and the companies that package their products have become increasingly aggressive about defending their respective bottom lines.

Taking tactics from Big Tobacco's playbook, the industry engages in bully tactics, politician buys and wide-scale misinformation campaigns meant to confuse the public and turn truth to speculation. Big Plastic is big money and survives regulatory scrutiny by creating big spin.

Because of slashed budgets to regulatory agencies, little private-sector money for watchdogging industry, and a lazy mainstream press that simply regurgitates its claims, the petrochemical industry goes largely unchecked. Here are some of the biggest whoppers.

Lie #1: Plastics are safe.

To date, we use over 248,000 chemicals in commerce and we don't know which ones are harmful or safe. Why? Because the vast amount of research on plastics we use in our lives comes from the plastic industry.

Much of the plastic we see on a daily basis we know by its designated recycling numbers 1 through 7. These plastics are not pure; rather, they're a proprietary formulation of additives, some of which have been shown to be endocrine disrupters, carcinogenic and pose countless other health concerns, but very, very little data exists on additives, toxicologically speaking. In the United States, chemicals that make plastics are innocent until proven guilty, leaving the burden of proof of toxicity to the vastly underfunded and under-staffed Environmental Protection Agency. With 248,000 chemicals on the market, don't expect any light shed here anytime soon.

Perhaps the best-known additive is bisphenol-A, or BPA. Though it's gained media traction having been shown to cause sexual mutations, cardiovascular disorders, obesity, and diabetes, the $6 billion annual industry makes the plastics industry protect it fiercely, even though Centers for Disease Control studies have shown that 93 percent of the adult population has BPA present in their urine. BPA has been on the radar of environmentalists for years but few policy victories have been won because industry-funded studies repeatedly don't show adverse effects, though all the independent studies do.

Lie #2: The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch does not exist.

In a 25-page report for the Save the Bag Coalition, meant to refute claims made by the media and environmentalists about the presence of plastic in the ocean, attorney Stephen Joseph wrote that the "so-called 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch,' which is alleged to be twice the size of Texas, does not exist." To keep the speculation on the table, industry hammers on a single point; in early 2011, Oregon State University issued a press release titled, "Oceanic "Garbage Patch' Not Nearly As Big As Portrayed By Media" and a huge media storm ensued calling out environmentalists as a result.

Why this press release was so widely distributed is strange, because the woman who issued it isn't even a relevant name in the plastics research world. But seeing an opportunity to pound environmentalists, the plastic industry created a PR blitz sending press releases to media and form letters to lawmakers. What's interesting is that no one can attribute who first made the Texas-sized analogy, and no primary source for the quote exists, though it certainly went viral.

 
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