President Donald Trump is all about plastics, arguing his support for it sets him apart from Democrats, trolling them for their environmental concerns and pushing any blame for too much of the stuff onto China.
But Trump’s plastics boosterism comes at a time when corporate America – from Google to Coca-Cola and beyond – is trying to appear more in line with environmentalists, at least attempting to associate their names with less plastic and more recycling.
It’s the latest in a very long line of examples of progressive change in the era of Trump being driven not just from outside the White House, but in spite of it.
Trump took personal credit Tuesday for a new plastic manufacturing plant being built by Royal Dutch Shell in Pennsylvania. Never mind that it had been planned since 2012 and built with the promise of more than $1 billion in tax credits from state taxpayers. That didn’t stop Trump from using it to push Pennsylvanians to support his reelection.
“Virtually every leading Democrat has vowed to eliminate fossil fuels,” he said, overstating the calls by Democrats to pursue renewable energy and address climate change. He asked Pennsylvanians to “get out there and make sure we win.”
The plant will use a byproduct of fracking to produce pellets used in the production of many different kinds of plastic, including those that make cars lighter and more fuel efficient and in wind turbines, a point the Trump administration has echoed. Further reading: The New York Times documented how the plant is part of a larger effort to bring manufacturing jobs to the Rust Belt, and the Pittsburgh TV station WTAE published a fascinating investigation that used customs records to determine that tens of thousands of tons of foreign steel was used to construct the plant despite the abundance of steel in Steeler country.
Those are separate issues from plastics, however.
The problem with plastic
While plastic allows important technological developments, it also leads to a lot of waste when single-use bags and straws are discarded. They don’t biodegrade like other substances and they end up in the ocean and landfills.
Asked about whether there’s too much plastic in the world before he was set to speak Tuesday at the new plant that will manufacture plastics, Trump pointed the finger at other countries.
“You must be aware of all the reports that say the world is awash in plastic and the last thing it needs is more plastic,” a reporter said. ” What’s your feeling on that?”
His answer was to blame China, but also to make clear that in his mind, plastics are OK.
“Well, we have tremendous plastics coming over from Asia, from China, and various others,” he said. “It’s not our plastic. It’s plastic that’s floating over in the ocean and the various oceans from other places. No, plastics are fine, but you have to know what to do with them. But other countries are not taking care of their plastic use and they haven’t for a long time. And the plastic that we’re getting is floating across the ocean from other places, including China.”
Trump actually does have an anti-plastic waste accomplishment he could point to. He signed a bipartisan bill to combat garbage and plastic in the ocean, the Save Our Seas Act. At the event where he signed it, however, he managed to not utter the word “plastic.”
He doesn’t talk about that bill much anymore either. He’s much more likely to mock renewable energy efforts, or wrongly say wind turbines cause cancer.
Meanwhile, on his official reelection website, his campaign is doing its best to troll liberals by selling 10-packs of plastic Trump straws.
“Liberal paper straws don’t work. STAND WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP and buy your pack of recyclable straws today,” says the site, which points out they are reusable and recyclable. The campaign has raised more than $450,000 from them, it told Politico in July.
But it’s not just liberal cities trying to ban bags and cut down on plastic straws.
Corporate America is trying very hard to at least seem responsive to the issue of pollution and to appear to be cutting down on its use of plastic.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi are attempting to improve their environmental images and reduce the number of plastic bottles they are producing. They have a lot more work to do. As part of its stated commitment to transparency on the issue of plastic and waste, Coca-Cola told the Ellen MacArthur Foundation this year that it alone produced more than 3 million tons of plastic packaging in 2017. It has set a goal of recycling or collecting the equivalent of everything it produces by 2030.
Both companies announced recently that they’ll sell their water – Dasani for Coca-cola and Aquafina for Pepsi – in aluminum cans in addition to plastic bottles.
A new group of laws in cities aimed at limiting plastic straws – either by banning them or making them available only upon request in sit-down restaurants – has led to a backlash, hence the Trump campaign’s straw sale. But some companies are moving away from straws regardless of the laws.
Starbucks developed a new recyclable lid for its iced drinks and is one of a handful of companies working on its own to phase out plastic straws. The UK is banning them by 2020, and companies there are having to get on board. McDonald’s moved away from plastic straws in its UK and Ireland stores, but found the new paper straws were not recyclable, though the old plastic ones were.
Google said last week that it would include recycled plastic in its products by 2022.
Amazon, responsible for plenty of packaging, has moved toward paper-padded packaging that it claims is recyclable, and it has a portion of its website devoted to its sustainability and environment efforts.
Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi also stepped away from a plastics lobbying group that has worked with a group that helped encourage states to make it impossible for cities to ban single-use plastic. There are currently more states (13) that ban plastic-bag bans than the two that actually ban some plastic bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But many cities in states that allow it have moved to limit, ban or charge for plastic bags.
There is support for such bans where they’ve occurred. A Siena College poll of New Yorkers in April found bipartisan support for that state’s ban on single-use plastic bags in grocery stores.
But those bans can only do so much. China is among the 127 countries that have some kind of law limiting single-use plastic bags, according to a 2018 UN report. The fact that China is still responsible for such a large portion of the plastic waste in oceans is proof that things like plastic-bag bans can have a limited effect on pollution.
In another twist, China, which processes many recyclable materials, has stopped accepting many forms of recyclables and – according to Citylab – cities and towns, unable to find a market for their recyclable materials, are cutting down on some of their recycling programs as a result.