Plastics: All Kinds of News

June 22, 2011

Are you looking for a story of interest to consumers, retailers, manufacturers, lawyers, politicians, health officials, and editors of the business, politics, health, energy, science, and environment beats? Just one word: plastics.

Once again, they're in the news, in many ways.

Three major plastic bag manufacturers are fighting back against claims their products are bad news for the environment. Citing their own facts, Hilex Poly Company, Superbag Operating, and Advance Polybag are suing a reusable bag manufacturer, ChicoBag, which they claim was using erroneous facts about plastics and plastic bags in its efforts to pitch the merits of its bags.

This federal suit is part of a larger effort by plastic bag manufacturers to convince consumers that bans on plastic bags aren't productive or necessary, and to pressure local officials into not banning plastic bags (though a number of cities already have, and more are considering doing so, despite lawsuits challenging their efforts).

Among other sources are:

Three examples of coverage of this issue include:

Canadian cities are also dealing with this issue. The Toronto Star editorialized against the possibility the city would rescind a two-year-old, 5 cent fee on plastic bags. As in the US, some of the basic issues in play are limited-government philosophies vs. environmental concerns. The editorial addressed a topic that resonated with its audience, as 36 people chimed in to comment.

The plastic bag issue extends far beyond North America. Jurisdictions around the world have limited, banned, or implemented fees on plastic bags, due to concerns such as potential harm to wildlife, petroleum use, damage to infrastructure such as storm drains, litter, and societal issues such as perceptions of a "throw-away" consumer culture. For one quick scan of the global situation, see:

Other plastics issues are also in the news. For instance, Chicago Department of Public Health officials are concerned about the possibility that customers who bring their own containers (plastic, glass, cloth, boxes, baskets) to stores to take home foods will contaminate the foods in the bulk dispensers and make others sick. The bring-your-own-container practice is allowed in some cities and counties, but not others.

There are numerous issues to explore, such as the true degree of risk involved, the perceptions of customers and the business community, the opinions of your local health officials and lawyers, and protective measures that a store can take to minimize any risk. One example of media coverage of the Chicago situation is:

One reason customers use their own containers is to attempt to avoid toxics that may be in plastic containers or bags. However, there is evidence some of the reusable synthetic bags may themselves be contaminated with toxics such as lead and other heavy metals.

That was the case in a small, recent study of reusable bags in Washington and Iowa, in which 10% of the bags failed to meet state of Washington standards. You can provide a service to your audience by telling them the state of affairs on this issue locally and nationally, and informing them what local, state, and national officials are doing, if anything, to address this problem. For one example of coverage of the Washington study, see:

One developing alternative to petroleum-based plastic products is the use of materials that rapidly biodegrade. On the surface, this seems to have some merit. But some critics are identifying pitfalls.

For instance, North Carolina State University researchers are concluding it may be better to use materials that biodegrade more slowly. This is because many of these products are thrown away, and end up in a landfill. There, they release methane gas, but the researchers say only about a third of all landfills collect the methane and use it to generate energy; the rest either flare it off or don't even collect it. For landfills that do any type of methane collection, federal law says they don't have to begin collecting it until about two years after garbage is buried. So products that biodegrade rapidly can spew methane into the air before it's collected. The researchers recommend designing products for somewhat slower biodegradation, and increasing the number of landfills that capture methane quickly and productively.

Biodegradation — which can be achieved with a wide range of materials that can have very different end-products — addresses just one phase of a product's life cycle. Much more work needs to be done to fully understand the full life cycle costs and benefits of all types of plastic (and other) products. For one perspective on this angle, see:

These are just some of the plastics issues in the news, and a smattering of starting points for beginning to cover them. Once you delve into this topic, other angles and sources will emerge. 

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