Corporate America's Message in a Bottle

Business and conservationists at odds over what's best for the environment - a letter from Earth

WHEN historians look back at Earth Day 1990, they may record that the lowly plastic ketchup bottle symbolized how corporate America became the OPEC of the '90s. Remember OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries? The organization that by the mid-'70s had made sheiks chic, sent world gas prices into the stratosphere, and taught the big three US automakers to think small - for a while. The organization that got Americans to forget about Earth Day, at least temporarily.

Twenty years ago, Earth Day was launched to tell Americans that they were polluting their country. In 1970 the Gallup Political Index reported that 4 percent of Americans considered pollution to be the most important problem facing the nation. By 1973, that figure had risen to 10 percent.

But in 1974 when OPEC jacked up its prices, service stations and heating oil distributors did the same; Americans forgot about air, soil, and water pollution and thought more about their pocketbooks. As a result, four years after Earth Day, Gallup reported that ``zero'' percent of Americans considered pollution to be the nation's most important problem. Energy suddenly had taken center stage.

Which brings us back to the plastic Heinz ketchup bottle.

One of these bottles showed up on my desk the other day - in the form of an 8-by-6 inch swatch of white carpet. The accompanying Heinz blurb claimed that the plushy mat had in a former life been a ketchup bottle. The message seems clear: If you buy Heinz ketchup in plastic bottles you will be saving the environment by being part of a recycling chain.

Nor is Heinz alone.

Two packets from the Polystyrene Packaging Council, Inc., recently rose to the top of my ``in'' box. The containers, one of fluff, the other of pellets, supposedly held what once were foam coffee cups, hamburger containers, and food trays. The council's letter said the contents were fit to be processed into building insulation, toys, and plastic lumber.

Where OPEC caused Americans to forget - albeit temporarily - about pollution, these and other companies are in effect encouraging us to disregard Earth Day 1990 environmentalists, most of whom promote conservation and a modest change of lifestyles. As the 20th century draws to a close, the corporate message increasingly seems to be ``produce, consume, recycle, reproduce, and reconsume.''

There is much posturing in both camps. Both sides agree that recycling is necessary. Conservationists urge us to purchase ketchup in glass containers and drink coffee from ceramic mugs (or at least from paper cups). Conservationists, though, prefer deep cuts in consumption wherever possible.

Both sides, too, differ on matters of growth. On one hand, New York Times columnist William Safire urges us to place a higher value on growth than on limits. Claiming that the world can produce, feed, and shelter billions of people, Mr. Safire said in a recent column that in one or two centuries ``our descendants will be coordinating our celebration with the colonists whooping it up for Mars Day and Venus Day.''

Paul Ehrlich, professor of Population Studies and Biological Sciences at Stanford University, on the other hand, says that the US and most other developed nations remain in a demographic dream world. In his book ``The Population Explosion,'' he cautions that the explosion will end before long and that ``the only remaining question is whether it will be halted through the humane method of birth control, or by nature wiping out the surplus.''

Amid the hoopla of Earth Day 1990, it is too soon to say whether the conservationist or business camps ever will be the clear winner. Or even what form plastic ketchup bottles ultimately will take.

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