When Will Big Plastic Go in Front of the Microphone?

In 1994, the CEOs of seven major tobacco companies in the United States were called before Congress and made to answer for the harm they were causing millions of Americans. When will a similar moment come for the plastic industry?

Jon Sundby

Policy Associate

In 1994, the CEOs of seven major tobacco companies in the United States were called before Congress and made to answer for the harm they were causing millions of Americans, and the cover-ups that had kept the public from recognizing the true damage caused by smoking. The moment was a flashpoint in a national conversation about smoking and became an iconic reminder of the willingness of corporations to put profits above our wellbeing.

Recently, the pharmaceutical companies that orchestrated our nation’s opioid crisis were called to make a similar march into Congress, to answer for their role in encouraging the over-prescription of their products. Their call to the halls of Congress is part of a continuing effort to hold these companies accountable for the harm they inflicted upon the country.

The public outrage that prompted these congressional investigations stems from fact that many of these companies were well aware of the consequences of their business model, yet decided to continue marketing their products anyway. Time and again, those who sell products that are damaging to public health or the environment have opted to hide evidence of the danger and blame consumers for the damage rather than tell the full and honest truth.

Much the same could be said of another industry that might at first seem to have little in common with tobacco or opioids: the plastics industry. Since the 1950s, the chemical companies that produce plastics have flooded our country with cheap, single-use plastics that have turned into one of the largest environmental issues of the modern era. Today, plastic is nearly ubiquitous in the earth’s ecosystems, being found from the Mariana Trench to the Pyrenees.  Plastic litter degrades the natural landscape and plastics are estimated to annually kill up to a million sea birds and 100,000 sea mammals and turtles. The chemicals that are released when plastic breaks down have also been shown to affect animal reproduction systems, making it less likely that ecosystems can rebound from environmental pressures.

Plastics also threaten human health. Plastic residue is likely within most of us, and while the science is still developing around the issue, it is hypothesized that chronic, long-term exposure could lead to a range of health issues. Already, some of the chemicals in plastic have been negatively linked to cardiovascular and reproductive health problems, as well as being carcinogenic.

Just like pharmaceutical and tobacco firms, the plastic industry knew many of the risks of its products, yet decided to continue to fight solutions and shift the blame onto the American public. The industry has a long history of working to defeat regulations on its products – including bans on plastic bags and straws. It also has worked to hamper action on a local level through legislation known as “preemption bills,” which prevent local jurisdictions from implementing their own policies on plastic waste.

Instead, the industry has tried to frame plastic pollution as a consumer problem. For years plastics companies and trade groups have poured money into anti-litter and recycling campaigns. While these initiatives may sound positive, and even do good work, the industry uses them to promote the myth that single-use plastics are sustainable if properly disposed. The sad truth is that plastics recycling is not viable and will likely never be. A recent study in the journal Science Advances found that only 9 percent of the world’s plastic has ever been recycled. This dismal recycling rate is not helped by the fact that most plastic producers prefer to use virgin plastic over recycled materials, and have fought regulations that would require a greater percentage of recycled plastic to be used in new products.

As with tobacco and opioids, the plastics industry has been able to profit at the expense of consumers and the health of our bodies and of other creatures. It’s time for the industry to be held to account. Bringing executives into Congress to answer for the damage their products have created and for their past efforts to evade responsibility could help to focus both the public and elected officials on the steps we must take to address the problem. Today, many people are aware of the injustice that occurred as the pharmaceutical and tobacco companies became rich by fueling public health epidemics. As concern about plastic waste continues to mount, we need to come to grips with the failure of industry and politicians to act. With luck, that moment can become a turning point.  

Image: 1994 tobacco hearings, C-SPAN


Jon Sundby

Policy Associate