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As ACC advocates stewardship on straws, why stop there?

On Jan. 26, we saw a point of agreement on plastics waste: the American Chemistry Council and the Plastic Pollution Coalition now both agree that we should all use fewer plastic straws.

OK, it's not exactly a "stop the presses, we have a Middle East peace agreement," kind of news. It's only straws.

But it's worth unpacking for a minute. ACC's Plastics division announced Jan. 26 that it's taken a formal product stewardship position aimed at encouraging consumers to use fewer plastic straws.

"It's the right thing to do," said Steve Russell, vice president of the ACC plastics unit, in a statement that linked it to ACC's work with the Ocean Conservancy and other non-governmental organizations on reducing plastics going into waterways.

"As a member of the Trash Free Seas Alliance, we support many initiatives that help prevent marine litter, and we believe providing straws through an 'on-demand' system gives customers choice and helps prevent waste by ensuring that straws are distributed only to those who need them," Russell said.

It's unusual for business groups to advocate using less of any of their products. One of the reasons they exist is to advocate for their industry's products.

So I was struck by how the industry position is now partly similar to the "Last Plastic Straw" campaign from the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

PPC advocates that consumers:

1: Say "no straw please."

2: Contact local restaurants and ask them to only give straws on request.

3: Encourage them to use non-plastic straws.

4: Screen "Straws the Film."

PPC, though, is more forceful than ACC. Its website, for example, includes a hard-to-watch video of a plastic straw being pulled from a sea turtle's nose, with blood running down the unfortunate turtle's face.

On points of agreement, I'm guessing ACC would go along with 1 and 2, but draw the line at 3 and 4. (Although I wonder if this latest step from the plastics industry would open up the chance for a joint ACC-PPC film screening.)

OK, that's not a serious suggestion. And I admit I haven't seen the film. But here's a serious question: Why should the plastics industry's product stewardship positions stop at straws?

If it's the right thing to do for straws, isn't it also the right thing to do with plastic bags, polystyrene foam clamshell containers and other highly disposable products?

With widespread concern about plastic waste and marine pollution, a stewardship position on those products seems a no-brainer.

I asked ACC what other product stewardship positions it had taken on plastics, and it said it had one in 2015 on microbeads, and an announcement on marine litter.

There's another level to consider: How about asking the industry to fund public service ad campaigns encouraging people to use fewer straws or plastic bags?

That may seem like a crazy way for an industry to spend its money, but some in the European plastics sector debated that last year, when the PlasticsEurope association considered whether it should support some sort of public education effort to reduce plastic bag use.

One leader in the group compared it to the alcohol industry funding advertising campaigns to encourage people to drink responsibly.

The 3 R's of the waste management hierarchy — reduce, reuse and recycle — rank them in order of importance. In that thinking, we should try to reduce before we recycle.

The plastics industry advocates recycling its products, but what PlasticsEurope was debating was taking it to another level: public education aimed at reducing consumption in the first place.

The European association also told us that it is OK with charging people for plastic bags. I think it would be very hard for the U.S. plastics industry to take that position. The European plastics industry clearly faces more public pressure. National governments there are actively considering bottle bills, for example, and the European Union in January adopted an ambitious plastics strategy targeting single use products.

I can imagine a worried industry reaction here. Isn't it bad to advocate less consumption of my products? Won't sales go down?

But to me, advocating less consumption of single-use products does not change the larger value of plastics to society, particularly in longer-lasting products.

Plastics still make cars lighter and save fuel and vehicle pollution, still reduce food waste with better packaging, still make homes more energy efficient and still can make infrastructure better, to give a few examples.

But if it's the right thing, as ACC says, to reduce use of straws, it's also the right thing for industry to advocate less use of plastic bags and other single-use packaging.

Steve Toloken is Plastics News' news editor-international. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.

» Publication Date: 08/02/2018

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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research, technological development and demonstration (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° [606572].

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