It was H.L. Mencken who said ``For every complex problem there is a solution that is precise, simple, clear, and wrong.'' Over the past twenty years, the collective intelligence of the large petrochemical companies has failed to accurately predict the thoughts and feelings of the general public about plastics. This becomes apparent when we see the well-produced APC commercials on which large amounts of money have been spent in an attempt to make up for lost time.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s it was widely discussed by the petrochemical companies that people would not buy downgauged products because they lacked confidence in them, even though functional strength could be maintained.
It took the creativity, hard work, and willingness to take risks on the part of the small manufacturer of plastic products to initiate change. Only then did the large companies follow suit in making products such as thin trash bags and grocery bags.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s the general public became increasingly concerned with the global environment and the world we will leave our children and grandchildren. Once again, the petrochemical companies underestimated the intelligence of the consumer, by portraying plastics as a precise, small percentage of the landfill by weight. Landfills are never closed for weighing too much, they are closed because they are filled with bulky items.
Since 1960, the amount of packaging in garbage has increased 80 percent. If we expect plastics to continue to replace paper, glass, and other materials, we must face the fact that it is a growing part of our waste stream rather than denying plastics' place in packaging. And, while plastics provide benefits in health, convenience and safety over other materials, there is a responsibility that comes with our right to use disposables that impacts the consumer.
Despite the precise, simple and clear wisdom of the petrochemical companies, some independently minded manufacturers invested in recycling technology early in the 1990s only to have some petrochemical companies such as Phillips 66 Co., Quantum Chemical Corp. and Union Carbide Corp. follow in order to serve their customer base.
We in the recycling industry, including those petrochemical companies that made investments in recycling, can andshould feel good about helping plastic product manufacturers use an alternative raw material. Not only has it eased some pressure at times of allocation, but true post-consumer content dispels the public's negative feeling toward plastic by demonstrable action rather than TV commercials and magazine advertisements.
The way to initiate change is to give the general public what it wants and not tell it what the chemical industry wants. If history is an indicator, we in the plastics industry will be hearing much more about recycling and buying recycled, despite the chemical industry's clear and simple solutions of source reduction and incineration.
As for source reduction, one must first look at this from a common-sense perspective. Reducing the weight and wall thickness of a rigid container does absolutely nothing for reducing the cubic capacity of a landfill. Source reduction does play a part for flexible packaging, but only as an integrated element along with recycling. The forward-looking manufacturers in the plastics industry realized this when they moved away from trashing their plant scrap to reprocessing it decades ago.
So, unless we as an industry feel that we should be sending our plant scrap to incinerators or plants with similar technology labelled by the petrochemical companies as ``advanced recycling,'' why should we expect the general public to swallow this historically flawed plan?
The plastics manufacturing industry must decide what action to take. On one hand, we can count on the TV commercials to give the general public a warm fuzzy feeling about plastic. But we risk that positive influence if the consumer has plastic bottles and containers left on the ground next to the recycling bin. Or we can encourage recycled content and collection of recyclables as social conscience demands. We must also make people, both in our industry and outside our industry, aware that plastics recycling is young and growing.
Of course, we must deal with the economics. For the past five years the burden of supporting the post-consumer recycling industry has been on the back of entrepreneurs and proactive product marketers such as Procter & Gamble.
As with any new industry, the economies of scale will grow and the economics will fall in line if the growth process is encouraged. Today post-consumer resin can meet functional performance requirements at a price that is at parity with the virgin resin prices of midsized plastic manufacturers. The big buyers may pay a couple of cents more for post-consumer resin, and the small buyers may actually see a discount over their virgin price.
It is time for manufacturers other than the household chemical marketers, such as Procter & Gamble, to do the right thing.
Those who have encouraged the use of post-consumer resin have found that, in many cases, it is much easier to put efforts into using post-consumer resin rather than to spend time and money fighting it. After all, it takes 43 muscles to frown and only 17 to smile. So think of your grandchildren, smile and use post-consumer recycled material.