HAIL TO THE PLASTICS CZAR
“Look Daddy!” she squealed, bursting into the house. “I got a yoyo!” The beaming smile, the bright of my child’s eyes, this delight in the smallest of things is joy, pure and simple. In the split second it takes her to hand me the yoyo, I wonder whether I can still pull off the walking the dog trick, but this question becomes moot as I palm the toy. The weight is wrong. The fluorescent green wheels are but thin malleable shells, sharp with flash (the excess plastic that squeezes between the molds during injection) and void of the mass necessary to yoyoing a yoyo. The string is kinked and too short. And less than twenty-four hours later, the yoyo lands in our trash.
A similar fate awaits far too many plastic products because they fail prematurely, should never have been made in the first place, and are priced too cheaply for us to care. You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling swath of plastic debris stuck in the North Pacific gyre, whose size is estimated as small as the state of Texas or as large as the continental US. It turns out the patch is not an undulating crust of floating refuse as I had visualized but something barely visible and rather more insidious. Of course, the chunky bits do exist. Google dead seabird plastic and you’ll find images of birds decomposing around digestive tracts clogged with plastic bits. We humans are discriminating enough not to purposefully eat the stuff. But that won’t stop it from getting into our systems. We should be very concerned with the concentration of particles suspended just below the ocean’s surface where they continue to photo-degrade into synthetic fragments small enough to be ingested by tiny aquatic organisms. And thus they begin their journey up the food chain.
Cans, sippy cups, water bottles, plastic wrap and almost everything else made of polymers leach chemicals. Even the in vogue “BPA free” plastics seep byproducts associated with a host of problems, including low fertility rates (perhaps not a bad thing), endocrine disruption, reproductive disorders, impotence, heart disease in females, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, asthma, and strangely, the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
In 2015 a team of environmental scientists conducted a forensic analysis of the patch and calculated that China and Indonesia are responsible for 30 percent of the mismanaged plastic waste that washes out to sea. The United States placed 20th in the rankings of responsibility for the mess. Be that as it may, it’s time that we all assume some personal responsibility for our consumption of plastic.
I just wanna say one word to you. Just one word.
Are you listening?
Yes I am.
Exactly how do you mean?
There’s a great future in plastics.
It’s unlikely that Charles Webb, whose novel inspired the 1967 film, The Graduate, anticipated the scope or irony of Mr. McGuire’s prescience. Of course, plastics have been beneficial too. Think food preservation and disposable medical devices. But look around you for a plastic product. Ask yourself, does that product perform as intended, will it continue to do so for an appropriate length of time and are you really better off with it?
President Roosevelt throned a slew czars, including a transportation czar, manpower czar, production czar, shipping czar, intelligence czar and synthetic rubber czar, mainly to manage the wartime allocation of resources. These were not just feel good titles, but positions invested with the statutory power and executive backing necessary to make things happen. If I were Plastics Czar, I’d mandate a digital platform designed to bridge the disconnect between the end user and manufacturer and give customers a direct say in the triggering of government action. What? How?
First a PLASTICode––Product Longevity Accountability Suitability Test of Integrity Code––akin to the unique ISBN number for books, would be assigned to every plastic product. To obtain the code, the manufacturer would have to provide product specific information including a Declaration of Performance (what the product promises to do), the type of plastic used, whether it can be recycled, its propensity to leach, the expected life-span of the product, the year the product went on the market, country of origin and other useful information. Anybody could access this data online.
Importantly, a rating and review functionality would channel customer feedback directly to the manufacturer. That way instead of feeling helpless the next time your dishwashing rack fails after a couple weeks use, you could avail yourself of a voice directly into the ear of the source of the problem. If I were in the business of making things, I’d want to know what my customers are thinking. Products generating enough negative reviews would be subject to audit. If found to be substandard or in non-conformance with the Declaration of Performance, then tariffs (in the case of imports) or penalties (in the case of domestic products) would be levied. True government of the people, by the people, for the people.
I can already hear the chorus line. We don’t need more regulation. The free market is the best arbitrator of commerce. This would be expensive and complicated. To that I say, the too big to fail, socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor ethos we saw play out in the 2008 meltdown made amply clear that free markets are anything but. As to the expense, these are mitigated if the real costs (externalities) of our infatuation with plastics are factored into the analysis. Empowering the citizenry with direct connection to the manufacturers of the stuff that clutter our homes and lifestyles, and tangible consequences when products perform poorly, might just trigger the cultural shift necessary to caring about product integrity and ultimately result in reduced consumption.