Plastic PR Campaigns

Plastic bags float in green slime in Compton Creek. The trash that flows through inland waterways eventually ends up in the ocean and on the beach.

Plastic bags float in green slime in Compton Creek. The trash that flows through inland waterways eventually ends up in the ocean and on the beach.

I’d like to share an experience that I had last year with a PR campaign that I thought was very clever but was nevertheless quite damaging to the environment.

As you may have heard on the news, there is currently a push to increase the use of reusable bags when one goes grocery shopping.  This is so the use of single-use plastic carry out bags is diminished.  The reasons why environmental groups want to discourage the use of single-use plastic carry out bags are many, but the bottom line is that these bags pollute the environment and kill marine animals.  For a list of fact on this issue, visit this page:

You can also watch this CurrentTV video that summarizes the issue pretty well:

One way to discourage the use of single-use carry-out plastic bags would be to put a tax on them (and on paper bags as well-since their use are no better for the environment).  For this reason, there have been several bills in the California legislature to make this tax on plastic bags a reality. 

Now, you might think “well that sounds all good to me so who would opppose it?”

Enter the all-powerful plastic and chemistry industry.  When the plastic industry got word of the legislative attempts to decrease the use of their precious plastic bags, they VERY quickly launched a massive radio, online, and billboard ad campaign to basically kill ALL legislative attempts at curbing the use of plastic bags.  Not only did they oppose the legislation, they crafted a misinformation campaign that was so effective that it had legislators up in Sacramento shaking in their boots.  The campaign revolved around this site:

They even funded a “Save The Plastic Bag Coalition” if you can believe it.  Their angle was basically this: “politicians are insensitive rat bastards that want to tax you for using plastic bags that are already being recycled.”  Now, when you put it that way, who wouldn’t agree with the plastic industry, right?  Well, that’s exactly the point.

The level of deceipt in their pro-plastic bag ads was amazing.  First off, it wasn’t “politicans” that were behind the legislation, it was actual environmental and community groups-real average people that were pushing for such legislation because they were concerned about the health of their environment and of their communities.  Second, the idea that single-use plastic bags are actually being recycled is just plain false.  There is a small percentage that is being recycled, but it is basically so tiny that it is NOT making a difference.  That is why more aggressive steps-like the legislation that was being considered, are needed to address the problem.  For an explanation of the pro-environmental stance on what happened, check out these two posts:

Ultimately, the solution to the platic bag problem rests in the view that “we’re all on this together”.  It’ll take all of us to tackle this problem through educational efforts, volunteer activities like beach cleanups, recycling efforts like what some grocery stores are attempting to do, AND legislative efforts to discourage their use (like the tax on plastic and paper bags).  If you take one those elements out, we will probably NOT solve the problem effectively any time soon. 

After everything was said and done, I am wondering what kind of messaging techniques the environmental groups should have used in order to counter the misinformation campaign that the plastic industry launched against them.  This was definitely a battle of the big wealthy plastic industry with big pockets against the small tiny nonprofit enfironmental/community groups.  A tale of David & Goliath indeed; but in this case, Goliath (sadly) won.