ASPEN - American cities and towns shouldn't waste time debating if single-use plastic products such as grocery bags should be banned, an activist claimed Wednesday at the Aspen Environment Forum. The decision should be a no-brainer, said David de Rothschild.
Rothschild said the debate is getting bogged down because the American Chemistry Council (ACC) is pumping millions of dollars annually into a campaign to warn people that the "plastics police" will ruin the economy. The ACC is a trade organization for the plastics industry. Rothschild said the argument that banning plastic grocery bags will doom the economy is ridiculous. It will benefit imperiled ocean life and improve the food chain that threatens human health, he claimed.
Rothschild is the founder of Myoo, an environmental group that uses exploration and storytelling to give nature a voice. He has been recognized as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and a United Nations Environmental Program Climate Hero. He was part of a panel on day two of the Aspen Environment Forum, discussing "Rethinking Plastic: Design, Reuse and Recycling."
Rothschild said the effects of plastic on the food chain are just beginning to be understood. The problem, he said, is plastic breaks down into tiny fragments that get ingested by marine life and land animals, and becomes part of the food chain, exposing humans to untold chemicals.
The proliferation of single-use plastic - grocery bags, food wrapping and product packaging - is what he and numerous other environmental groups are combating. "It's everywhere. It's ubiquitous," Rothschild said of plastic use. And all of the plastic made after its creation just more than a century ago remains part of "Mothership Earth."
Much of the western world sees plastic as a cheap, throw-away item, he continued. The trick will be to show its true cost to society - from disposal costs at landfills to health effects.
The simple truth is grocery bags and Styrofoam cups aren't needed, Rothschild said. He wants a ban, not a debate.
"This is a solvable problem," he said.
Officials in Aspen and Basalt raised the prospect last winter of placing a fee on plastic bag use at grocery stories but the discussion has slipped into neutral.
Another member of Wednesday's panel, Marsha Craig, an executive with DuPont, a manufacturer of plastics, urged the environmental movement not to lump all plastics together. Many durable, long-life plastics - dubbed performance polymers - have essential uses, like in car engines, she noted. The lightweight materials replace metal and improve gas mileage of vehicles.
An increasing amount of plastic is also made of recycled materials. "I'm an optimist. I think plastics are good. I think they are going to get better," she said.
Steering people away from single-use plastics will require consumer education and changes in behavior, Craig said.
Panelist Ron Gonen said people have been conditioned to consider so many items as "garbage" instead of a "resource." They perceive garbage as something to toss away. They view a resource as something to put to use.
"We need to change the nomenclature from garbage to resource," he said. That will entice changes in consumer behavior.
In addition, steps must be taken to steer companies away from using plastics that cannot be recycled, like the No. 5 plastics on items like shampoo bottle caps, he said.
Gonen is co-founder and director of RecycleBank, a venture-backed, clean-tech company that rewards people for positive green actions. He likes to use incentives. In the case of plastics use, his idea is for governments to give a sales-tax break to companies that use 60 percent or more of recycled materials in their packaging, products or both.
Gonen said sales-tax relief would create a greater incentive for recycling and draw the private sector into the effort. Job generation would offset governments' loss of sales-tax revenues.
Companies must also be subjected to "full-cost accounting," which takes into consideration the price to society of disposing of products in a landfill, Gonen said. The idea is to promote recycling and get away from single uses.
Gonen said the greatest potential for change on use of politics is enticing changes at the top of the pyramid - among CEOs of the largest companies. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has probably made the greatest strides in changes his company's policy on resource use, Gonen said. More executives need to make changes in 2012 rather than plot out long-term initiatives, he said.
Rothschild said such companies as DuPont can be a leader by urging its corporate customers to use its plastic products more wisely. DuPont should say: "We're all for smart plastics but we're also against dumb plastics," Rothschild said. "That would be a bold move."
The Aspen Environment Forum, hosted by the Aspen Institute and National Geographic Society, wraps up Thursday.