Plastics industry battles negative image

The Canadian plastics industry is aggressively fighting government and consumer efforts to curb the sale of its product, according to industry documents.

The Canadian plastics industry is aggressively fighting government and consumer efforts to curb the sale of its product, according to industry documents.

There are mounting negative perceptions across North America about plastics' toxicity, recylabilty and harmful effect on the environment.

Plastics are made from a non-renewable resource — petroleum — and combined with chemical additives to help bind and soften the material. One of the additives, Bisphenol A, was declared toxic by Health Canada in October.

Civic facilities and universities across Canada have moved in recent years to ban plastic bags and bottles. Several grocery store chains have also banned plastic bags outright or started charging customers for them.

Toronto and Vancouver have passed laws banning municipal water bottles sales, and the Manitoba community of Leaf Rapids in 2007 became the first Canadian municipality to ban plastic bags.

Rising tide against plastics

The rising tide against plastics has prompted a "very aggressive, pro-active campaign to change [the] public’s perceptions," wrote Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA) president Mark Badger, in an industry bulletin released in late August.

The campaign was initially launched in 2009 and ramped up again in the fall of 2010.

As part of the campaign, the CPIA has published stories and issued news releases touting the benefits of plastic liquor bottles. The agency said they "significantly decreased in-store/ in-transit scrap, improved safety, decreased transportation costs due to lighter weight, and even allowed more bottles on the shelves since they are thinner walled than glass."

"Our next stories within the campaign will include energy-efficient vinyl windows, plastic packaging that reduces food spoilage and increases safety," states the bulletin from Badger, who has blamed the public backlash for cutting into the industry's profits.

"Unfortunately, in North America, the public's perception of plastic is predominantly negative," he wrote.

"The fallout from misperceptions includes de-selection of certain plastic products by retailers, changing consumer purchasing patterns and also in legislation that makes doing business difficult."

He noted in an online video with Canadian Plastics magazine that "the plastics industry contracted in 2009, and very substantially, by 17 per cent or 18 per cent."

'Political greenwashing'

Recently re-elected Winnipeg City Coun. Harvey Smith, who tried unsuccessfully in 2008 to ban plastic bottle sales from Winnipeg's recreation centres and city-run facilities, is not surprised by the industry's push to change perceptions.

City Coun. Harvey Smith intends to try again to ban plastic bottle sales from Winnipeg's recreation centres. (CBC)

He said he was amazed at how industry representatives flew out to Winnipeg to persuade other councillors to reject his motion before it made its way to council chambers.

"The industry sent two people out immediately to [an executive policy committee meeting]," Smith said. "I couldn't believe it. They wanted to forestall anything happening in Winnipeg."

With a new council in place, Smith said he will try to reintroduce the motion again.

"Maybe we'll get more support," he said.

Nestle Canada's John Challinor told Winnipeg councillors at the time a bottle ban was "nothing more than political greenwashing, environmental symbolism and bad political policy."

The plastics industry maintains plastic water bottles are safe, highly recyclable and provide a more convenient alternative to tap water.

The CPIA insists plastics are superior to paper, glass, aluminum and cardboard packaging from an energy-efficiency and transportation perspective.

It has also engaged in a glitzy pro-plastic marketing campaign to reverse anti-plastic sentiments. Their efforts include a "Teachers Ambassadors Program" to help Canadian schoolteachers educate children on the environmental benefits of plastic recycling.

Shipped to China

This week, a CBC News investigation revealed 82 per cent of Winnipeg's residential blue bin plastics were shipped last year to China, to mostly become durable goods, like fly swatters and toy dolls, that never get recycled again.

CBC News reporter Mychaylo Prystupa stands on top of mixed plastics gathered in Winnipeg and destined for China. ((CBC))

"The good news with plastic is that we don't need most of this junk," says Manuel Maqueda, co-founder of Plastic Pollution Coalition.

The California-based environmentalist recently travelled with a Canadian film crew to a remote Pacific island to shoot a documentary, Journey to Midway, about plastic pollution killing birds who mistake plastic for food.

But Maqueda admits cutting back on plastics can be overwhelming given that stores are full of plastic packaging.

"It's really hard to avoid plastic 100 per cent, but this is something we must do," Maqueda said. "This is a conversation we need to have.

"Don't be afraid of having this conversation with your children, with store owners. We can do it. We can move away from the disposable plastic era."

Maqueda recommends two simple steps: refuse plastic bags and bottles and choose products with less plastic packaging.

The City of Winnipeg is hosting a Speak Up on Garbage Expo at the Convention Centre on Saturday to kick off six months of consultations on the future of trash and recycling.