So said Mr McGuire to Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. The year was 1967, plastics were a dynamic source of money and innovation.
Today in 2014, we know Mr McGuire was right – plastics became such a fundamental part of our lives we take them for granted. Yet, where is the plastic industry taking us today, and maybe the most important question is at what cost?
The cocktail effect
Demand for disclosure about hazardous chemicals in plastic has been riding high of late. The term ‘cocktail effect’ is gathering traction globally to illustrate increasing concern over how our exposure to the chemicals in plastic may be having long-term implications to our health. But research investigating the effects is slow, which has prompted the Swedish Government to prepare for legal action against the EU Commission.
Every third second a new chemical is produced, yet there is no clear consensus on how this cocktail of bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other products affect us. Yet, we are exposed to and ingest around 500 potential hazardous chemicals daily from technology, clothes and food.
Thus we have the potential threat chemicals could play on our health with regulations that are still very limited. The roll out of the European REACH registration is still underway with the deadline still four years away.
Where lies the responsibility?
In February this year, former Director General for the Swedish chemical agency, and developer of the REACH agenda, released the book ‘Power, Plastic, Poison and our children’ – with stories about one of today’s most trending issues – hazardous chemicals in everyday life.
What the book identifies is that there is a huge gap in responsibility and disclosure, which is hindered by the complexity of the topic and sheer volume of chemicals to consider. Many suppliers simply don’t know all of the chemicals that their plastic products contain.
Society is now pushing for more transparency, which should prompt suppliers of plastic products to create strategies in a relatively new market.
Given the sheer spread of plastic use, virtually all industries are affected and at risk of having questions asked of them, as happened to Versace and other apparel brands earlier this year.
H&M has developed a precautionary strategy, with a list of non-regulated but acknowledged hazardous chemicals to avoid them in apparel and fashion.
What is the opportunity?
Looking forward, companies will have to become more sustainable by improving the way they measure, manage and report plastics in their supply chains. This is summarised in the newly released report from UN ‘valuing plastics: the business case for measuring, managing and disclosing plastic use in the consumer goods industry’.
In doing so, the commercial value from being first-mover on an emerging issue, can mean the brands themselves set the direction on – how can we use plastics in the future?