The plastics industry promotes the use of plastics as being superior to alternatives and better for the environment without mentioning the problems of toxic chemicals used and emitted in plastics manufacture nor the problems associated with the disposal of plastics. Rather students are encouraged to recycle and reuse some plastic items and no mention is made of those items that cannot easily be reused or recycled.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) produces a series of classroom materials entitled Hands on Plastics. For example Hands on Plastics Jr. includes games and activities “that can easily be incorporated into any elementary curriculum” and that are “designed to teach elementary school students about the positive impact plastics have on our everyday lives”. In one game children match plastic safety items such as helmets to the appropriate person and so “learn that a variety of safety devises are all made from plastics”.
The Plastics and Chemicals Industry Association of Australia (PACIA) education materials claim that “Chemicals Saved the Whale” by producing soap, leather, linoleum, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics synthetically rather than with whale oil. They also claim:
Reference: ‘Education’, Plastics and Chemicals Industry Association of Australia, 2009.Plastics Saved the Elephant
The elephant was once in danger of extinction because its tusks supplied ivory for billiard balls, piano keys, lampshades, toothpicks, umbrella handles, combs and beads. The arrival of acrylic and other plastics provided welcome substitutes for those tusks.
The ACC gives students the impression that the more plastic they use, the better off the environment will be. On its Plastics 101 website the ACC stresses the benefits of plastics – that without plastics, packaging would be heavier, require a greater volume of material, and need more energy to manufacture; that foam polystyrene containers take less energy to make than paperboard containers; that many more trucks would be needed to deliver paper grocery bags than plastic grocery bags. The issue of disposal is not addressed nor the fact that plastic bags clog drains and waterways and kill many birds, whales, seals, and turtles that ingest discarded plastic bags.
PACIA also argues that plastic drink bottles are more environmentally sound than glass drink bottles because they weigh less and therefore more can be transported at a time with less fuel use, they require less packaging, and use less energy to manufacture.
The latter claim is controversial. The Ecology Center in Berkeley argues: “When the equation includes the energy used to synthesize the plastic resin, making plastic containers uses as much energy as making glass containers from virgin materials, and much more than making glass containers from recycled materials.”
PACIA claims that “plastics help save resources, fossil fuels and energy. Plastics products also save water and preserve food”.
No mention is made of the pollution and waste products from plastic manufacture or the disposal problem the end products create. The plastics industry contributed 14 percent of the toxic releases into the air in the US during the 1990s and seven of the top ten manufacturers ranked by total releases were plastics factories: “Producing a 16 oz. PET bottle generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions to air and water than making the same size bottle out of glass”.
There is also the problem that additives in plastics can be toxic or carcinogenic and migrate into the air or food, and also out of toys, during use. These are not problems that the plastics industry will acknowledge. PACIA argues:
"Some chemicals have the potential to adversely affect our health and safety and to harm the environment. In response to public concerns over chemicals in the world around us, the chemical industry is taking care to minimise the environmental impact of the chemicals it produces. Recent chemical industry regulations ensure that chemicals are produced, transported, stored, handled, used and disposed of safely. The chemical industry is also continuing to research the health, safety and environmental effects of its products, processes and waste materials for the community’s benefit."
The production of plastics such as PVC also create toxic sludges and carcinogens that put workers at risk. When environmentalists were pushing for the use of PVC to be banned in the Sydney Olympic Games village because of the many environmental problems associated with it, ICI Australia put out a pamphlet on PVC for schools. It argued that all environmental problems associated with PVC had been solved, and that since 65 percent of PVC products were designed to last for between 15 and 100 years, PVC, on the whole, it “is not designed to be wasted”. It concluded “[s]o you can see, you’re wasting more if you don’t use plastic”.
The UK Chemical Industry Education Centre (CIEC) describes PVC as being made from salt and natural gas or oil, making it sound perfectly harmless.
The plastics industry deals with the problems associated with plastics disposal by focusing on the fact that they are lightweight: “plastics constitute a mere 9.4% by weight of all waste generated in the United States”. However the real problem with plastics in landfills is not their weight but the fact that they take up a lot of space and they do not easily decompose. Yet students are advised: “Shopping wisely by purchasing products that use the lightest packaging can make significant resource conservation impacts”. Students are therefore supposed to prefer plastic bottles to glass bottles and not to consider that much plastic packaging is unnecessary. The ACC suggests that there is no shortage of landfills and that “total landfill capacity is actually increasing”.
The ACC even touts the benefits of burning plastics with other municipal solid waste as a way of generating electricity, without mentioning the toxic gases that are generated by such incineration except to claim that “Modern air pollution control devices are used to control and reduce potentially harmful particulates and gases from incinerator emissions” and “most plastics, when properly combusted, produce energy, waste and carbon dioxide as the principal products of combustion”.
The US Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) produces a teaching resource for grades 2 to 5 entitled Don’t Let a Good Thing Go To Waste that is used in over 10,000 classrooms. Plastic, rather than being presented as a disposal problem, is presented as a material that can be reused and recycled. Plastic bags are claimed to be perfect for putting trash in because they “are strong, waterproof and easy to carry and hold a lot of trash”.
The Dow Education for Teachers website has a lesson plan on trash for students in 3rd and 4th grades. It attributes the increase in trash to socio-economic factors such as the breakup of the nuclear family and the increase in two-income families. Students are asked to list all the stuff they throw away and “think about how the data reflects their personal habits and lifestyles”. In this way the manufacturing industry is given no share of the blame for increasing trash, either through its promotion of consumerism or through its choice of materials and packaging, or through its opposition to mandatory recycling of products.
PACIA is one of the industry sponsors of Ollie’s World which has released classroom materials in the UK, US and Australia. Ollie Saves the Planet comes on CD and via the internet. It focuses on what individuals can do to help the environment and neglects the role of industry in environmental issues. For example the module on waste focuses on household waste and litter and doesn’t even mention industrial waste and the problems associated with its toxicity and how it is disposed of.
Students are told that as long as they change their individual lifestyles – for example, by recycling – the planet will be saved. Not surprisingly, the prospect of joining with others to confront corporate interests is never presented as an option.
The plastics section of Ollie Saves the Planet encourages students “to buy products and packaging made from biodegradable plastics, when possible” and reuse and recycle plastics. However the extent to which they can do this, given what is currently on the market, is not discussed.