MEC’s decision to stop selling polycarbonate bottles unleashes media storm

When MEC announced it was pulling all polycarbonate bottles from its shelves on Thursday, Dec. 6, the media storm the announcement unleashed left everyone, including manufacturer Nalgene, scrambling to separate fact from fiction. On Dec. 7, and in the days following, nearly 100 stories broke in either broadcast or print, including in prominent U.S. papers such as The New York Times. It proved to be a PR coup for MEC, and a bit of nightmare for Nalgene since Nalgene was frequently singled out by name and image as the banned bottle.

When MEC announced it was pulling all polycarbonate bottles from its shelves on Thursday, Dec. 6, the media storm the announcement unleashed left everyone, including manufacturer Nalgene, scrambling to separate fact from fiction.

On Dec. 7, and in the days following, nearly 100 stories broke in either broadcast or print, including in prominent U.S. papers such as The New York Times. It proved to be a PR coup for MEC, and a bit of nightmare for Nalgene since Nalgene was frequently singled out by name and image as the banned bottle.

“From our perspective, it was surprising and unfortunate as this move by MEC was not the result of a new study or new data that came out,” Eric Hansen, senior marketing manager for Nalgene Outdoor Products, told SNEWS®. “We understand why our name and images were being used as the example for the polycarbonate bottles as we are the clear market leader in that category.”

While some news reports and other comments SNEWS® has heard since the MEC announcement indicated some likened this to a product recall, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, when contacted, MEC clarified that the retailer did not make the decision to pull polycarbonate bottles because of any failure, known dangers, or any new study.

Tim Southam, media representative for MEC told us, “Inconclusive science and regulatory uncertainty presently surrounds bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical that is an essential building block of polycarbonate plastic. For these reasons, MEC has stopped selling polycarbonate water bottles and food containers until guidance is provided by the government of Canada on the health risks posed by BPA. MEC’s deliberations on this matter will be guided by the review of BPA that is currently underway through the federal government’s Chemicals Management Plan.”

According to a statement by Environmental Defence of Canada at the time of the MEC action, “Bisphenol A is used in hard, clear plastic reusable bottles (such as some Nalgene bottles) and baby bottles, and the linings of some food cans (including cans of infant formula). Two recent panels in the U.S. have pointed to potential health effects of exposure to bisphenol A. The U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences expert panel of 38 leading scientists found that most people are exposed to bisphenol A at levels higher than those that cause health effects in animal studies. An expert panel of the U.S. National Toxicology Program concluded recently that bisphenol A exposure to fetuses and to children could have behavioural and nervous system impacts.”

Hansen pointed out to SNEWS® that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a detailed study in January 2007 that found dietary exposure to BPA is well below the established tolerable daily intake established for food safety.

While Nalgene’s online FAQ created to deal with the onslaught of consumer, retailer and media inquiries stated MEC is the first retail store to pull polycarbonate bottles from shelves due to a concern of BPA, that is not the case. Patagonia’s brand stores pulled polycarbonate bottles from its shelves in late 2005. Nalgene told us it realized this mistake and would be correcting its FAQ.

"On December 11, 2005, Patagonia as a company decided to pull all polycarbonate plastic bottles from its shelves,” said Robert Cohen, vice president of retail for Patagonia. “We made the move as we became aware of recent studies that, while still inconclusive, raised questions that may suggest there are possible health consequences to humans from low-level exposure to bisphenol A. We decided to err on the side of caution and immediately removed all polycarbonate plastic bottles from our product line in all our markets in the U.S., Europe and Japan. We also offered a full refund to customers who had purchased a Patagonia-branded polycarbonate bottle in the past."

For its part, REI is not currently considering a ban on polycarbonate bottles, we were told in an email from Megan Behrbaum, public affairs manager for REI: “Legislation in Canada, Japan, the United States and Europe does not currently restrict the use of polycarbonate plastics in food-related use. Should we learn of restrictions or bans on BPA in any significant jurisdiction (i.e., FDA, EPA or international regulatory body), we will take steps to respond accordingly.

“In light of inconclusive scientific information and regulatory guidance, we will continue to sell polycarbonate plastics while monitoring international findings. We believe it is best to offer a range of product alternatives -- aluminum, stainless steel and polyethylene bottles. Additionally, our retail teams have been provided information so that employees can have conversations with co-op members and customers on product alternatives.”

EMS is taking a slightly different approach, with Will Manzer, CEO of EMS, telling SNEWS® by email, “We are disappointed with Nalgene’s response in the New York Times article. We are looking at every detail so that we can make an educated decision. We will do this as quickly as we can and make a decision that is aligned with our customers’ expectations. The category is changing now with the presence of CamelBak and stainless steel alternatives.”

It is important to note that Nalgene is by no means singled out by MEC. All companies making polycarbonate bottles and containers are affected, including those made by CamelBak, GSI Outdoors and others.

Equally important is the fact that only polycarbonate bottles are in question. Though Hansen acknowledges that the polycarbonate bottles make up the vast majority of sales for Nalgene’s outdoor line, the company also manufactures and sells bottles made of other types of plastics, including polyethylene (HDPE).

For its part, CamelBak will be eliminating all polycarbonate from its bottle line by mid- to late summer 2008, SNEWS® has learned. Sally McCoy, CEO for CamelBak, told us the company will be introducing a new material it is calling Tritan (a “co-polyester,” for you chemical geeks) into its Better Bottle line beginning in spring 2008, with a full conversion of all polycarbonate bottles to Tritan later in the year. Tritan is a U.S.-made resin.

Tritan has the same properties as polycarbonate (vibrant colors, clarity, durability, dishwasher-safe, and resistant to residual taste), McCoy told us. She also said CamelBak is making the change not because it believes polycarbonate is unsafe but because the company wants to offer its customers a choice with an innovative product. At the same time, she acknowledged CamelBak would no longer sell bottles made with polycarbonate once Tritan material is fully available in the line.

SNEWS® View: Concerns in recent months over BPA have been growing, as has the misinformation. Having Oprah Winfrey essentially blast polycarbonates as unsafe earlier in 2007 certainly did not help the cause – no matter what science has said -- because it’s hard to do battle with the power of Oprah. Clearly, CamelBak could not have asked for better timing with this news since it is ready to introduce a BPA-free plastic bottle in 2008.

Scientific studies aside, what retailers are dealing with here is consumer perception and fears of possible risk from exposure to BPA. Call it lack of trust in science or corporations, consumers simply are not going to believe data unless it is absolutely conclusive and from a reputable and recognized independent party or research institute, not a company selling products. Currently, such data does not exist. Consumers will believe Oprah, though, and therein lies the irony.

It’s not that Nalgene has not seen the writing on the wall. In early November, the company posted a press release touting is new HDPE line as one that “gives consumers a choice in the type of plastic that’s right for them, all with the quality and style they’ve come to expect from Nalgene.” CamelBak too offers alternative plastic bottles in its line.

Rather than bury the proverbial head in layers of scientific sand and try to argue this one out logically with consumers, we’d suggest that companies making bottles and food containers with polycarbonate would do well to realize polycarbonate bottles are tainted goods right now for many consumers because of their fears. Not for all, to be sure, but for many. And it is this realization that has had Swiss bottle maker SIGG smiling for the last two years with increased sales and market share for its aluminum fluid canisters with an inner coating. CamelBak, too, will be grinning ear-to-ear.



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