I have never worked in the plastics industry, but I believe that plastic is the material of the future. Plastic, more than any other material, will be used to improve the lives of millions of people. Hence, my frustration with the "plastic is bad" brigade and the plastic industry's often knee-jerk response, confirming already vaguely held suspicions that the industry is full of harmful corporate raiders who don't care about our planet.
Where is the cohesive and positive public relations message that the plastics industry so desperately needs? Here are five top strategies for charting a better course in 2013:
1. Tell stories
Stories help people connect with, remember and repeat your message. Examples:
c Once upon a time, in World War II, wounded soldiers died for want of blood transfusions. Blood was carried to the frontline in glass bottles, and frequent breakages resulted in blood shortages and higher than necessary fatalities. Plastic blood bags were trialed in the 1950s, during the Korean War, and this design is still used today. Plastics saves lives.
c Once upon a time, in 1957, a Polish journalist named Ryszard Kapuscinski traveled to Africa and thereafter spent decades covering the continent. In his book, The Shadow of the Sun, he observes the cheap, light, plastic container. "A dozen years ago, this container revolutionized life in Africa," he wrote. "Water is scarce, one must carry it over long distances, sometimes 10 or more kilometers. For centuries, heavy clay or stone vessels were used for this purpose. … The division of domestic labor was such that carrying water was women's work. … Then, the plastic container appeared. A miracle! A revolution! First
of all, it is relatively inexpensive (although in certain houses it is the only thing of value): it costs around two dollars. Most important, however, it is light. ... What a relief this is for the exhausted African woman!"
Plastic has literally lightened the load for millions of poor people.
2. Remember history
Plastics had a terrible reputation in the 1940s after a glut of shoddy and badly designed goods hit the market following the onset of mass production.
Then Earl Tupper came along with his Tupperware parties in the early 1950s and helped make plastic popular again with his functional containers that kept food fresh for longer. At the same time the introduction of plastics in clothing such as polyester, nylon and Lycra thrilled housekeepers. Who doesn't want clothes that are low cost, easy to care for and don't need to be ironed?
The arrival of the ubiquitous single-use bag in the 1980s, followed by water bottles in the 1990s, created the poster children for the current vilification of the entire plastics industry as polluting, toxic and unsustainable.
With the right communications strategy, popular opinion will shift again and the 21st century will see an increased understanding of how plastics are used for the greater good.
3. Make environmentalists the perfect partners, not the worst enemies
Among others, sea turtles, with their beautiful tortoise shells, and elephants, with their magnificent ivory tusks, initially saw a dramatic improvement in their life expectancies with the development of plastic and its ability to imitate natural materials.
Environmentalism and plastics are not incompatible. It would be hard to believe that the Sierra Club doesn't use any plastic in its efforts to protect the planet or that Greenpeace is without plastic in the rain gear worn while patrolling the oceans.
But the material that once saved the sea turtle is now strangling it. Plastic's wonderful, long-lasting, waterproof qualities make it a poor material choice for single-use items that are improperly disposed of.
Stop suing to prevent single-use bag bans. Yes, we know that it makes up only a tiny percentage of litter, but let's agree that we all hate plastic bag litter. It is what we see stuck in trees, waterlogged in gutters and caught on fences.
Start working with communities and grocery stores to identify what is the best carrying sack for them. Depending on their priority — low carbon footprint, renewable material, made in the USA or cost — they will most often find that the best choice is a reusable bag made from recycled plastic. Help your bag-making members retool, reposition and diversify their product line.
Do not work alone. Recommendations from the plastics industry aren't worth the paper bag they are written on: No one trusts you. The "How to Choose a Bag for Your Community" manual needs to be created in partnership with big environmental organizations. It is in their interest to promote accurate information in their quest for plastic-free habitats.
4. Clean up your language
I hate plastic trash, but I love plastic. So if your message does not resonate with me, it won't persuade or influence anyone. In the last year, I have only seen the plastic industry play defense, using arguments that are either ineffectual or counterproductive, making people hate the industry even more.
Ineffectual arguments include:
•The industry creates and supports thousands of jobs and is filled with hardworking people. This is true for most industries and not a special consideration. Businesses come and go as the world changes. Typewriter makers were aggrieved when personal computers came along. Porters despair of the wheelie suitcase.
•The industry drives innovation in recycling. This is of course excellent, but people can't see the trash that is not there and it is images, not words, that affect people most.
Counterproductive arguments include:
•Because some Hollywood celebrities favor bag bans, anyone who wants to ban bags must be star struck. This was widely repeated during the contentious L.A. bag ban discussion. While not always, most people make up their own minds and don't just do whatever Julia Louis-Dreyfus says. And I would guess that more movements find celebrities to promote their message rather than movements being formed in the wake of celebrities.
•Defending your position with words such as "junk science," "myths," "ideological agenda" and "nanny state." While perhaps justified in certain cases, using these terms does nothing to encourage a space in which all sides can listen and learn.
Play offense. Use positive language. Show, don't tell. And turn your frustration into inspiration.
5. Engage optimism, not doom and gloom. Keep up the hard work
It has only been about 60 years since plastic hit the mainstream and we have only touched the surface of what this remarkable material can do. The world has many problems and, although often behind the scenes, the plastic industry will be at the forefront of solving many of them.
Whether through innovations in health care, global communications or sustainable living, plastics will have a growing role to play. And at the same time everyone in the industry must be transparently working to reduce the negative impacts on our whole ecosystem.
Man could not have gone to the moon without plastics and we won't alleviate poverty without it either. Get a cohesive, positive public relations message in 2013 and keep up the good work!
Laura Clauson is founder and president of Beautiful Waste, Hanover, N.H.-based social business that promotes waste management and recycling for the benefit of the urban poor.