PROCESSORS HAPPIER WITH PUBLIC'S PERCEPTION

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People are feeling pretty good about plastic these days.

At least that's how most processors assess the public's attitude toward their industry, according to a recent Plastics News fax poll.

On a scale of 1-10 — using 10 as the top score — 54 percent of the processors polled put the public's attitude at seven or eight —not bad when you consider plastics once were aligned routinely with beach litter and landfilling.

Though those problems remain, many processors said they credit the Washington-based American Plastics Council's advertising campaign with turning the public around. That is an indication that processors, large and small, feel the trade group, funded entirely by resin suppliers, is working on their behalf.

Along those lines, 52 percent of those polled said they would consider joining APC's Washington counterpart, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., if SPI implements a large dues cut, making membership in the trade group more attractive. SPI is currently mulling a substantial cut for processor companies.

APC spent $20 million last year on television, radio and print ads, including the ``plastics make it possible'' campaign. According to APC's studies, the strategy has worked.

What has changed since the ads, some processors say, is the public's understanding: Before, they did not know how much plastics figured into their daily lives, said Richard Smith, president of blow molder Service Plastic Containers Inc. of Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

``You wouldn't be able to do a heart operation except for plastics,'' he said. ``If they see it on television, then they'll understand.''

Just 5.9 percent of the processors polled gave the general public a nine for their views, and 1.4 percent gave them a 10. More than 27 percent of the respondents said the public rates only a five or six when it comes to their feelings toward plastics; the remainder of the responses fell below those marks.

Many processors who think the public is changing its views of the plastics industry for the better, qualified that statement with modifiers like ``slowly,'' ``gradually'' or ``slightly.''

But John Hoyt, chief executive officer of injection molder Great Lakes Molding Inc. of Galesburg, Mich., did not share the optimism. To the public at large, plastic is ``still cheap and dirty,'' said Hoyt, who was among 7.6 percent who rated the public's view at just four points.

People used to look at plastic as cheap, said Marshall Henderson, president of Amex Packaging Ltd. Now, however, its image is improving, in spite of the still-loaded landfill issue, he said.

APC ads aside, nearly a dozen processors noted that many people not only continue to care about how plastics firms dispose of their waste, they have embraced recycling as one answer to solid waste. Despite recent problems facing recyclers, some processors think the industry has made great strides in recycling plastics. Others disagree with that appraisal, such as Tom Kuehn, head of thermoformer Plastic Ingenuity Inc., near Madison, Wis.

``I don't hear as much [on the] landfill debate. But I am disappointed everyone is giving up on recycling,'' Kuehn said, noting that his customers no longer are interested in post-consumer content.

The public's attitude toward the plastics industry has improved because of the APC ads coupled with the fact that plastic is being recycled, said George Dreckmann, head of recycling for the city of Madison. But, he warned, the entire infrastructure for plastics recycling is headed down the tubes, because the industry now ``seems unconcerned with recycling the waste that its products generate.''

Dreckmann blames resin suppliers for lobbying against recycled-content laws and, recently, for dumping virgin PET into the marketplace — both of which are hurting post-consumer PET markets.

``[Recycling's] acceptance rate with the public is very high, and if you pull plastics out of the [recycling] mix and make it a bad guy again, I think you'll see a change in consumer behavior,'' he said.

Injection molder Berry Plastics Corp. also believes that people who take part in plastics recycling will have a more favorable perception of the industry. Several years ago, after the Evansville, Ind., firm realized plastic was getting a bad rap in local classrooms, it developed a program to educate third graders about plastics recycling.

``My daughter came home and said, `Dad, you're killing the world,' '' said Berry President Ira Boots.

Since then 10,000 third graders have passed through Berry's program. But, like Hoyt, Boots gave the public a low score of four for its views. ``I think there's still a lot of misgivings about plastic packaging,'' he said.

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