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).
- Hilex Poly Company.
- Superbag Operating (based in Japan; Lawrence Pennoni in Spring, TX is listed as a registered US agent for the company).
- Advance Polybag.
Among other sources are:
- Save the Plastic Bag Coalition (an industry group).
- Jennie Romer (founder of an advocacy effort supporting restrictions on plastic bags).
Three examples of coverage of this issue include:
- "In a War of Words, Makers of Plastic Bags Go to Court," New York Times, June 11, 2011, by Felicity Barringer.
- "Watch Out Portland: Plastic Bag Makers Aren't Shy About Taking Their Case to Court," The Oregonian, June 13, 2011, by Scott Learn.
- "Big Plastic vs. the Bag Monster," June 13, 2011 (includes a brief discussion of some related legal issues — including the rationale for why the plaintiffs chose to file suit in South Carolina, even though ChicoBag is based in California — and mentions a case involving a plastic bag industry challenge of a city's potential ban on plastic bags that is expected to be ruled upon this summer by the California Supreme Court).
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.
- "Cutting Waste: Plastic Bag Fee Earns Its Keep," Toronto Star, May 30, 2011.
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:
- "While Energy Policy Falters, Plastic Bag Laws Multiply," National Geographic News, May 3, 2011, by Andrew Curry.
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:
- "City May Put a Lid on Latest Eco-Trend," Chicago Tribune, June 12, 2011, by Monica Eng.
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:
- "Tests Show Most Reusable Shopping Bags Safe," Spokane Spokesman-Review, June 4, 2011, by Becky Kramer.
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.
- "Is Biodegradability a Desirable Attribute for Discarded Solid Waste? Perspectives from a National Landfill Greenhouse Gas Inventory Model," Environmental Science & Technology, online May 27, 2011, by Levis and Barlaz.
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:
- "Facing the Dirty Truth About Recyclable Plastics," Yale Environment 360, May 5, 2011, by Daniel Goleman.
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.