But given the current framework of laws and policies regulating chemicals in the U.S. and the utter ubiquity of plastics, there's only so much an individual can do. U.S. law tends to treat chemicals as safe until proven otherwise. As a result, most of the tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce have been poorly tested to determine their effects on the environment or human health.
In Europe, by contrast, the burden of proof is on safety rather than danger. European regulators act on the precautionary principle, the idea of preventing harm before it happens, even in the face of scientific uncertainty. A new E.U. law enacted in 2007 requires testing of newly introduced chemicals, as well as those already in heavy use, with the burden on manufacturers to demonstrate they can be used safely. To comply with that law, American manufacturers are already selling products in European markets that have been reformulated to comply with the precautionary principle. For instance, a phthalate alternative, DINCH, is being used in vinyl medial supplies sold in Europe. But not here.
When you say our love affair with plastic needs couples therapy, you've nailed the difficulty of the transition we need to make. What kind of change is possible, in terms of regulation? And what kind of reasoned, thoughtful action can an individual take that will actually make a difference?
Making over our relationship with plastic requires change at all levels—from government, industry, and individuals. I don't discount the value of what individuals can do. If we all made more of an effort to reduce our reliance on throwaway plastics (e.g., carry your own bag and bottle), to reuse more of the plastics that come through our lives, and to recycle as much as possible, that would help put a dent in plastic waste and pollution. We also can use our power as consumers to help shape the choices we are offered, making more conscious choices at the store and rejecting over-packaged goods and products that can't be reused or recycled. The power of the purse is why Walmart, Target, and other big box stores stopped selling baby bottles that contained Bisphenol A, even though the chemical has not been outlawed. We can also join forces in political campaigns to press for change. Pressure by the grassroots group Healthcare Without Harm helped persuade many of the country biggest hospital chains and hospital supply purchasers to stop using medical devices made of vinyl.
But individual actions alone are unlikely to bring about the scale of change that we need. The European experience suggests that laws that hold industry accountable for the products it puts into the marketplace can have a powerful effect. The E.U.'s tougher chemical laws have galvanized greater use of "green" chemicals. I'm also impressed by the effect of Europe's extended producer responsibility laws—measures that make companies responsible for what happens to their products and packaging at the end of their useful lives. When companies, rather than taxpayers, have to pay for collecting and disposing of plastic waste, dramatic changes happen: They use less packaging, they use materials that are easily recycled, and overall recycling rates go up.
These are the kinds of policies that could take us to a new level in our relationship with plastics, so we can reap the benefits plastics have to offer without the dangers.
Images (top to bottom): ingridtaylar/flickr, Library of Congress, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt