What do cigarettes and single-use plastics have in common? Most cigarettes have a single-use plastic filter -- so smokers get a dose of petrochemicals along with their tar and nicotine. Also, single-use plastics are becoming recognized as a public health crisis just like cigarettes were decades ago. Finally, both the tobacco and plastics industry have demonstrated a disconcerting lack of ethics in pitching their products to kids.
The current environmental, health and safety battle over the impacts of single use plastics reflects the early days of the anti-smoking movement in many ways. Public awareness about the impacts of single-use plastics on the environment and human health is increasing due to the work of nonprofits, universities and governmental bodies. Single-use plastics are becoming recognized not only as an eyesore that litters our nation, but as threats to public health as they have entered our food chain both directly, through leaching their chemicals into food and drink, and indirectly, as plastic pollution is consumed by marine life in our lakes, rivers and oceans.
But with the plastic bag being the number one consumer item on the planet according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the plastics purveyors won't go down without a real fight. The war is being fought between environmental and public health interests and the petrochemical lobby, headed by The American Chemistry Counsel (ACC) with Dow Chemical at the helm. In pushing its agenda to keep Americans hooked on single-use plastics, the ACC has employed many of the same tactics that were used by the tobacco industry.
Remember Joe Camel? He was the R J Reynolds Cartoon Mascot for Camel cigarettes that was abandoned by that company in 1997 under pressure from public-interest groups and a pending lawsuit alleging that Joe Camel was a marketing ploy to attract children to smoking. In 1991 The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study showing that by age six nearly as many children could associate Joe Camel with cigarettes as could associate Mickey Mouse with the Disney Chanel logo. Also, 32.8% of all cigarettes illegally sold to minors were Camels, up from less than 1% before the cartoon camel campaign. Internal documents from RJ Reynolds that were to be used in the trial showed that underage children were indeed on the minds of the cigarette manufacturers despite their claims to the contrary: RJR's Vice-President of Marketing explained that the "young adult market... represent[s] tomorrow's cigarette business. As this 14-24 age group matures, they will account for a key share of the total cigarette volume -- for at least the next 25 years."
You can rest assured that the purveyors of the lucrative single use plastic bag have done their market research to keep young Americans asking for plastic at the cash register. While municipalities and countries around the world are banning single use plastic bags, the petrochemical lobby is upping their game at marketing them. Plastic bag manufacturers who call themselves "an environmental group" in court papers created "Save the Plastic Bag Coalition" to file lawsuits against jurisdictions who ban or place fees on plastic bags. Three of the largest plastic bag manufacturers have sued a small reusable bag manufacturer ChicoBag for "irreparably harming" their business. The ACC sponsors the plastic recycling section of Earth 911 as a means to promote recycling plastic as the solution to plastic pollution when evidence shows otherwise (see Plastic and the Great Recycling Swindle). And now the ACC is trying to enter the classroom via our children's textbooks.
A California Watch report published Friday found evidence that the American Chemistry Council has contributed what can only be seen as propaganda to the state's new environmental curriculum. The curriculum includes a section in the teacher's edition for the 11th grade entitled "The Advantages of Plastic Shopping Bags," which includes passages lifted verbatim from letters the American Chemistry Council sent during the public comment phase of the curriculum's drafting.
The curriculum includes a workbook question asking students to list the Advantages of Plastic Bags. The correct answer listed in the teacher's edition is: "Plastic shopping bags are very convenient to use. They take less energy to manufacture than paper bags, cost less to transport, and can be reused." In fact, reports Amy Westervelt, "there's no clear convenience benefit to plastic bags versus paper or reusable bags, reusable bags can be re-used many times more than plastic bags, and the energy question is still very much up for debate."
The smoking wars are all but over. According to the American Nonsmoker's Rights Foundation, 79.6% of the U.S. population lives with a ban on smoking in "workplaces, and/or restaurants, and/or bars, by either state commonwealth or local law." New warnings are on ads and packages are gruesome and clear. Smoking kills and it's an ugly way to die. Visit one of the states or a foreign country with no restrictions and you will truly appreciate the fresh air that comes with regulation.
It is time to regulate single-use plastics as a threat to public health and the environment just as cigarettes are regulated. Currently over 25% of the world's population lives with a ban or fee on plastic bags. In a 2009 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report, the first-ever attempt to take stock of the marine litter situation in the 12 major regional seas around the world, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said: "Some of the litter, like thin film single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased-out rapidly everywhere-there is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere." No amount of dirty tricks on the part of the plastics lobby can stop what is becoming a public movement. Today, even children know that plastic bags are bad for the environment and that reusable bags are the solution. The correct answer to "Paper or Plastic?" is "Neither."
This post has been updated from a previous version.