On Plastics, Let's Be Perfectly Clear
A new scorecard tells us about the toxic chemical footprints of everyday plastics. But the game between industry and consumers is still rigged.
In a 2007 Skidmore College museum exhibit titled Molecules That Matter, the exhibit’s curators noted that we are never more than three feet away from something plastic. That stunning statistic reflects just how thoroughly plastics permeate the fabric of our daily lives. So it’s sobering, then, to consider that the plastics industry is one of the largest consumers and users of chemicals known to be hazardous to human health or to the environment.
The process by which fossil fuels are transformed into an iPhone case—or a toothbrush, a Barbie, a soda bottle, a car seat, or countless other objects—consumes a mindboggling 244 million tons of toxic chemicals, according to a recent report. The recipes for many of our most common consumer plastics include carcinogens such as benzene and styrene, as well as hormone-disrupting phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA). Indeed, 96 percent of the BPA that gets produced in our labs goes toward the manufacture of plastics.
Consumers have been concerned about the issue for years. But with plastic playing such an essential role in the global marketplace, the public demand for more information about the relative safety of different kinds of plastic has been met with a mostly tepid response from manufacturers.
Enter the Plastics Scorecard, a new tool that has been designed to evaluate the chemical footprints of these omnipresent materials. As far as I can tell, the Plastics Scorecard represents the first time that anyone has ever tried to bring this level of (you’ll pardon the pun) transparency to plastics. The hope, of course, is that—as with similar tools that are capable of analyzing the chemical footprints of electronics, cosmetics, and cleaning products—the Plastics Scorecard will encourage manufacturers, brand owners, and retailers to reduce industry’s reliance on hazardous chemicals that are, as of right now, such an integral part of plastics production. “We’re trying to lay out a framework that companies could use to make decisions about what would be a safer plastic,” says Mark Rossi, co-director of Clean Production Action (CPA), the Boston-based nonprofit that designed and produced the scorecard.
As Rossi and his colleagues were putting their scorecard through its paces in order to test its efficacy, their findings underscored the scope of the problem. For starters, they learned that there really are no inherently “safe” raw plastics. Five of the ten common plastics that the team evaluated received failing scores—zero out of a possible 100 points—due to the fact that toxic chemicals were used at every single stage of their production. That ignoble group included well-known problem plastics like PVC and styrene, but also included lesser-known materials such as polycarbonate (used for compact discs), styrene butadiene rubber (often used for tires and the heels of shoes) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (found in an array of products, including musical instruments, golf clubs, and Legos).
Even the least hazardous plastic they evaluated—polylactic acid (PLA), the corn-based plastic that’s typically found in compostable foodware—only rated a middling 58 points, according to their scale. The tough ratings reflect the fact, as Rossi put it, “very few chemicals are inherently safe.” Still, dinging PLA, which is a relatively benign material, does raise the question of whether the scorecard is “too challenging,” he admits. (They may revisit the issue in version 2.0 of the scorecard, he adds.)
And as their accompanying report made clear, it’s not only the type of plastic that matters: what you do to it matters, too. Equally implicated in the toxicity profile of any given plastic are many of the additives that give it certain properties the marketplace demands: that make it stronger, or more flame retardant, or more flexible, for example. Often, these are the very chemicals most likely to off-gas or leach out.
According to Rossi, plastics manufacturers could dramatically shrink the chemical footprints of their products by choosing safer versions of these additives—or, better still, by shifting over to plastics that don’t require any additives at all. For an example of how that’s done, they might look to Dignity Health, a California-based hospital chain that decided to eliminate any possible trace of toxic chemicals from its IV kits simply by switching from PVC bags—which contain BPA, a known endocrine disrupter, as well as DEHP, a phthalate—to bags made from an additive-free plastic. Making that one change allowed Dignity to eliminate more than 777,000 pounds of “high-concern” chemicals from its hospitals over six years—the equivalent, in weight, of a Boeing 747.
Of course, if we just had more effective hazardous-chemical regulations on our books, there wouldn’t beso many hormone disrupters out there in need of eliminating. Unfortunately, efforts to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act—the 1976 federal law governing the use of dangerous chemicals—have been stalled in Congress for years, with no breakthrough in sight. Our best bet, increasingly, has been to rely on what has come to be known as “retail regulation:” leveraging the aggregate power of consumers to apply pressure to retailers—as well as brand owners and manufacturers—who, in turn, can apply pressure to their suppliers to provide them with safer products.
"Walmart has a list of chemicals they want their suppliers to get rid of...but they’ve never gone public with that.”
The Plastics Scorecard promises to be a valuable tool for those retailers and other companies that are willing to engage in retail regulation. “It’s an easy-to-use metric,” according to Roger McFadden, a vice president and senior scientist at Staples, Inc. A chemist by training, McFadden worked closely with the business sector for many years advocating for safer materials before going to work for the office-supply giant, which sells thousands of plastic-based items from printers to paper clips. For some time now, McFadden says, Staples has been informally nudging its suppliers on a variety of chemical issues—asking them, for instance, whether a specific additive in a plastic product is really and truly needed, or could be replaced with something safer. The company has also sought out substitutes for PVC whenever and wherever possible. With the introduction of the Plastics Scorecard, McFadden says, “we now have a more structured, formalized approach to scoring these things. And we can standardize that [approach] across the supply chain.”
Even so, one problem with retail regulation is that the transparency it fosters still allows for only limited visibility. When asked for specific examples of plastic-based products that Staples has decided to stop carrying, McFadden hedges: “I’d rather not do that.” His company, he explains, has a policy of not divulging those kinds of specifics—“out of respect to our suppliers.” The best you can hope to get out of him are broad, categorical examples: Staples has replaced its PVC blister packs with ones made from PET (a polyester-based plastic that’s generally regarded as safer), for example, and has determined that bamboo flash-drive casings are a salable alternative to plastic ones.
McFadden’s reticence is typical, says Richard Liroff, director of the Investor Environmental Health Network. Retailers looking to green up their supply chains are walking a delicate line. They don’t want to alienate their suppliers, who often regard the specific mix of chemical ingredients that make up their plastics as valuable “proprietary information.” Furthermore, many retailers are reluctant to advertise such changes, because they’re uncomfortable with broadcasting the fact that they were selling something considered to be dangerous in the first place. Among industry-watchers, “it’s well known that Walmart has a list of chemicals they want their suppliers to get rid of,” says Liroff, citing just one example. “But they’ve never gone public with that.” In the woeful absence of stronger governmental regulation, retail regulation may indeed represent the public’s best chance for bringing safer products into the marketplace. But ironically, it still leaves individual consumers out of the loop. As Rossi notes, retail regulation is a misnomer: it’s really more of a wholesale tactic, as opposed to a retail one. I’m certainly grateful for the Plastics Scorecard, and for other tools like it that allow us to measure the chemical footprints of the millions of consumer items we purchase every day. And I appreciate that mega-retailers like Staples are making it possible for me to furnish my office, and to fill my kids’ backpacks, with (slightly) greater peace of mind. But one of the more frustrating aspects of living in the Age of Plastics is that we still know way too little about these materials from which so much of our daily life is constructed. Just imagine if the Plastics Scorecard, or something very much like it, was attached to every plastic product that was for sale. Then the information we’d need to make informed choices about which plastics to use and which to avoid would be—like the plastics themselves—easily within arm’s reach.