In the last month or so, I’ve had enough industry conversations to begin to be convinced that promotional products have made strides to genuinely limit single-use plastic. Discussion around “forever chemicals,” and the damage caused to our bodies and our world has picked up.
But, outside our bubble, where the chemicals are produced and the plastic products manufactured, the war on plastics in general is just heating up again.
On one side, we’ve got the Minderoo Foundation—an Australian philanthropic organization described on their website as “seeking to break down barriers, innovate and drive positive, lasting change, with key initiatives spanning from ocean research and ending slavery, to collaboration in cancer and community projects.” A new study published last month by the Minderoo Foundation suggests that there is new ammunition for the battle over plastics, specifically that there exist billions of dollars’ worth of legal claims against the petrochemicals industry tied to human harm caused by plastic pollution. U.S. makers of plastics and additives are the likely primary targets, according to the Minderoo study, with claims potentially exceeding $20 billion through 2030 and, “an order of magnitude larger” after that.
On the other side of the battle line is the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which countered with a statement the same day the results of the study were released. “The report on the petrochemicals industry is simply designed to ‘generate headlines,’” according to the statement from the ACC. “Everyday plastics help protect people and keep us healthy in countless ways. Plastics make modern medicine possible. Syringes, IV bags, N95 masks, and almost all sterile medical instruments rely on plastics. Outside of hospitals, plastics help prevent everyday exposures to pathogens, through products such as food packaging that separate raw meat from fresh produce and bags to pick up pet waste.”
Just as oil and gas companies are now starting to be held legally and financially accountable for the climate change impact of their products, and the chemical companies for damaging the environment and human health (e.g., PFAS, glyphosate), a new wave of litigation is expected to emerge around plastics, according to the Minderoo study. The costs to society from plastic pollution, including environmental clean-up, ecosystem degradation, shorter life expectancy and medical treatment, exceed $100 billion per year, according to the research. The harm to human health is just as damaging as plastic pollution’s more widely recognized impact on the environment, the research suggests.
Consistent with what we’ve talked about here before, the Foundation study finds that manufacturers of chemical additives used in plastics, many of which have well-established, harmful links to human health, are the most exposed to litigation risk. Also exposed are manufacturers of plastic polymers, the products that ultimately degrade into micro-plastic particles which persist in the environment as forever chemicals.
“Corporations have polluted this world with billions of tons of plastic products and continue to do so despite knowing that many contain toxic chemicals that arrest cognitive development, reduce reproductive viability, and increase cardiovascular disease and obesity,” said Dr. Andrew Forrest, chairman of the Minderoo Foundation. “Our research accelerates the growing list of health risks. It is only a matter of time before the courts, regulators, and lawmakers determine who will pay the cost of poisoning our planet and people."
The ACC continued their rebuttal: It’s important that we better understand the risks of a world without plastics and move beyond the rhetoric. Plastics are essential to a lower carbon future, enabling solar and wind energy, insulating homes, preventing food waste, and making vehicles lighter. Plastics are essential to innovation, from space exploration to cutting-edge medical advances. Without plastics, our future would look much like the past.”
As far apart as the sides seem to be in visualizing the future, I found it interesting that both suggest a circular plastic economy is the answer from their respective perspectives.
First, from the ACC: “America’s plastic makers remain laser-focused on creating a circular economy in which these essential materials are captured and remade, over and over, so that society can retain the myriad benefits that make modern life possible.”
Then, from the Minderoo study, as part of the No Plastic Waste campaign, which “aims to create a world without plastic pollution – a truly circular plastics economy where fossil fuels are no longer used to produce plastics.”
So, as you talk to your clients about the solutions to plastic waste, which circular economy plan is REALLY the solution you’d be willing to suggest to them? Collecting and recycling plastic over and over (which isn’t possible with most single-use plastic), or avoiding using fossil fuels to create plastic in the first place? Showing you’re looking out for them by looking ahead is truly a value-add opportunity.