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Official: Recycling can help the public feel good about plastics

By: Jim Johnson

November 19, 2013

CHICAGO — Kim Holmes didn’t travel to Chicago to sugarcoat.

Three slides into her presentation at the Global Plastics Summit, she showed pictures of plastic littering a beach, plastic bags caught in trees, plastics in a trash can.

But the director of recycling and diversion at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. also said that while plastics suffer a public perception problem when it comes to sustainability, there also is an opportunity to move the needle in terms of opinion.

“People have kind of come to think that plastics can be inherently bad for the environment. The reality, however, you know when plastics are managed properly at end of life, they present a whole bunch of sustainable benefits and opportunities,” she said.

“Plastics become a very valuable commodity for the recycling industry. Scrap plastics, when they are reprocessed become an important input for the manufacturing sector. And plastics that can’t be mechanically recycled present a great opportunity for energy recovery,” she said.

But Holmes, while touting the opportunities for plastics reuse, did not shy away from painting a picture about what many people think about plastics and sustainability.

“I wanted to put these images in because I think these are some pretty powerful images,” she told the crowd. “And when you’re talking about people’s perceptions of plastics, it really is, unfortunately, it has been their negative interaction with plastics,” she said.

Plastics’ market success, think packaging and single-serve containers, has helped create a problem for the industry. “It has become the hallmark material of our throwaway society, too,” she said.

“When you look holistically … plastics are a very valuable material and that’s what we need to better convey to the public and have them begin to change their thinking about plastics,” Holmes said.

Plastics recycling, in the past, has been approached “in a very siloed way,” she said. “Recyclers have worked on it. Brand owners have worked on it. Municipalities have worked on it.”

“But I think what we’re beginning to see is that it’s going to take a very orchestrated approach,” Holmes said.

“We’re really going to have to take a supply chain approach,” she said, and look for ways to both drive demand for recovered plastics as well as find uses for recycled content materials.

“Once we can overcome this end-of-life challenge and really change the perception of plastics, I think plastics can become the material of choice,” she said.

People, when they look at other recyclable materials, are not conflicted about glass, aluminum and paper.

“In fact, they feel kind of good about their ability to recycle those,” she said. “It’s a good, tangible thing that people can do for the environment.”

And the goal is have people have the same feelings about their plastic recycling efforts. “It’s going to be a really challenging thing to do if people don’t feel good about plastics,” Holmes said. “So, really, proactively expanding recycling and recovery activities should be a priority of everyone in this room.”

But it’s not just about public perception as the recycling and diversion director also said there is a business case for offering recycled resins.

A SPI survey this year showed that 68 percent of respondents have been asked by customers to offer recycled resins. There also is a push to include more recycled content in consumer goods, construction and packaging.

The Global Plastics Summit was organized by the global information company IHS Inc. and SPI, which is based in Washington.