Plastics industry tries to make a new impression Environmentalists aren't convinced

January 20, 1993|By Dallas Morning News

Look what's at the doorstep, asking for a second chance. It's plastic.

Once the darling of the American consumer, the petroleum-based product has been recast in recent years as a pariah by environmentalists. But the plastics industry is determined to turn its image around with a new, five-year, $50-million publicity campaign.

The goal of the national print, radio and television advertising is to teach Americans to love plastic again.

"We've done a lot of consumer research, and we've found that people have either forgotten or don't understand the benefit that plastic brings to their lives," says Jean Statler, vice president of communications for the American Plastics Council. "We really needed to go to consumers and remind them of the benefits of plastics, as well as give them the facts about plastic's true role."

But what the plastic industry's environmental task force calls facts are considered more of a smoke screen to the Environmental Defense Fund, the non-profit group that persuaded McDonald's to forsake its foam hamburger box for a paper version.

"The plastics industry has two options," says Jackie Prince, staff scientist of the Washington-based research and advocacy group. "One is to convince people that the benefits of plastics outweigh the environmental costs. The second, which we would support, is to work to reduce the environmental impact.

"It appears the industry needs a full-scale pitch to make people love the product again, rather than make tough decisions to improve the environmental profile."

Ms. Statler, though, says the 27 plastics companies in the council are doing both -- selling the product and tackling environmental issues.

She says the industry has pledged to invest $1.2 billion into recycling between 1990 and 1995; so far, she says, $500 million has been spent on a variety of efforts.

"We're very strong believers in recycling as a way of life," says Ms. Statler, whose group also is based in Washington. "What this campaign is trying to do is to establish somewhat of a beachhead to stop the slide in public opinion, and give the industry the time to become more environmentally friendly."

Hence, she says, the ad campaign's refrain, "Take another look at plastic."

On the four TV commercials that began airing in November, actors extol the various uses of plastic.

"Plastic insulation keeps our homes warm and saves energy," says one.

L Plastic "helps make cars lighter to save gas," another says.

"When you think about plastic," yet another says, "you may think about things like strong, lightweight garbage cans. Think again, about life-saving automotive air bags made of plastic."

The commercials also make specific claims -- that plastic foam cups take less energy to make than "many other disposable cups," for instance, and that "plastic [grocery] bags take less energy to make than other grocery bags."

Ms. Prince of the Environmental Defense Fund takes both claims to task.

"The plastics industry is making conclusions on a really scanty data base," she says. "You can't just compare paper and plastic."

To illustrate the complexity of the issue, she points out that, after thorough study, McDonald's chose to go with a paper box for its hamburgers, yet rejected paper for its hot-drink cups.

"The reason is, it's not clear whether paper or plastic is the better choice for cups," Ms. Prince says.

The paper industry also takes exception to the plastic campaign's claims. "The numbers are skewed in favor of plastics," says Richard Storad, spokesman for the American Paper Institute.

"One plastic bag is not equivalent to one paper bag, since paper bags hold more. In the study when they used two plastic bags to one paper bag, paper sacks were less energy-intensive than plastic."

Ms. Statler says the plastics council stands by all the claims made in the commercials.

The research, she says, "did take into account" that paper bags hold more -- and anyway, she notes, the paper industry has a financial stake in plastic's negative public image.

"The plastic grocery bag was introduced in 1984," she says. "By 1988 it had taken over 80 percent of the market. That would tick you off, wouldn't it?"

So far, Ms. Statler says, she has been pleased with the response to the new ad campaign. She has been able to gauge it by the number of people who have called the advertised toll-free number, (800) 94 PLASTIC, for a free booklet. She says that, so far, more than 10,000 people have called and left messages.

"A handful were negative," she says, "but the rest were testimonials."

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