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America’s Chicken-Egg Problem

by Greg Stevens

 

Recently I was listening to a local Dallas radio talk show that was discussing the recent Paris Motor Show 2010.  The woman who was the “on site reporter” was telling the host of the show that the one overwhelming theme of the show was: electric cars.  Every single manufacturer had at least one (but often several) new models of car that ranged from hybrid to fully electric.

But the reaction of the Dallas talk show host was stereotypical almost to the point of being cartoonish: complete with thick Texan drawl, he focuses on what obviously really matters: “How did they look?” and “But how do they expect these cars to get into the American market, when we don’t have the infrastructure for electric yet?”

This second objection he felt was important enough to repeat several times, and he even ended his show with that commentary: It doesn’t seem like a smart decision to be pushing all of these electric cars out, when here in the United States we don’t have the infrastructure yet for them. 

Our friendly Dallas talk show host isn’t alone in this mind-set, either.  According to one report, Ford Europe boss Stephen Odell expressed the same concern: “Frankly the technology needs to get better, with a longer range … and the cost has got to come down. And there’s the infrastructure — where are you going to charge your car?”

I call this the “Chicken and Egg” argument against adopting new technology:

“It’s stupid to build electric cars when there is no infrastructure to support them!” and “Why should we waste money on building an electric car infrastructure when nobody has electric cars?”

This argument got my attention, because it is the exact same argument that people in the United States use against moving toward bioplastics.

In Europe, in the world of bioplastics, just like in the world of electric cars, the outlook is progressive and forward-looking.  According to Steve Davies, director for corporate communications and public affairs at NatureWorks, the European market is upbeat. In July, the US-based biopolymer manufacturer boosted its presence in Europe by linking up with Trevira, a German polyester fibre specialist. “The European market is performing very well in some applications and solidly in others,” explains Davies.

But just like in the electric car industry, the United States is falling behind.  Recent reports on technologies and global markets related to bioplastics say it outright:

Use of bioplastics got off to a faster start in Europe than in the United States. European usage is now reported at 175,320 metric tons in 2010 and is expected to increase at a 33.9% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) to reach 753,760 metric tons in 2015.

Even the most positive spin describes the United States as a places of “untapped opportunity”:

Biome’s Mines also notes that in the US, there is an opportunity for growth. “The US market is starting to become aware of the issues and the potential of biomaterials although is still behind Europe,” he observes.

Why is the United States chronically behind?  Based on what I’ve heard, it is the same chicken-and-egg mindset.  When you have been reading blogs and opinion pieces critical of bioplastics, what are the main objections you have heard?

  • We can’t start pushing compostable plastics, most people don’t have “compost” bins, only “trash” and “recycle” bins
  • We can’t start pushing compostable plastics, because there aren’t as many composting facilities as there are landfills
  • We can’t start pushing compostable plastics, because there are so few manufacturing facilities for it that it is too expensive to make in bulk.

How many of these sound familiar? Every single one of these arguments has the same format: the Chicken-and-Egg format.

From now on, every time you read or hear this type of argument against bioplastics, please remember to point this out:  This is a Chicken-and-Egg argument.  This is a “I won’t do it until the other guy goes first!” argument.  It is not an argument against bioplastics in particular.  It is simply an argument against any kind of change.


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