In the early days of plastics recycling - way back in the early 1990s, before the current Age of Skepticism and the intervening Age of Falling Prices - Tom Rattray was an oracle. When Rattray said the plastics industry needed to get serious about recycling, the industry sat up and paid attention.
When Rattray complained about a shortage of recycled plastics, a generation of ambitious entrepreneurs jumped forward to join the business.
Rattray, who is retiring as Procter & Gamble Co.'s associate director for environmental quality worldwide, had a high profile, but he was not alone. He had counterparts at Rubbermaid Inc., Tucker Housewares, Lever Bros. Co., Clorox Co. - all of the large users or potential users of recycled plastics.
For a while, it seemed Rattray was everywhere. You couldn't go to a major plastics, packaging or recycling industry event without having an opportunity to meet this curious, thoughtful man.
Rattray was known for his props. He always seemed to have the latest P&G packaging innovations tucked somewhere in his sport coat, ready to make a point or help answer a question.
He never seemed to pull any punches. I heard him give a talk at Berry Plastics Corp., when he pulled out a prop - a nonaerosol deodorant bottle - and launched into a discourse on volatile organic compounds. If Rattray knew he was touching on controversial ground, he gave no indication. But Berry Plastics was a leading supplier of injection molded overcaps for aerosol cans, and Rattray's discourse was not warmly received.
Rattray was in an odd position at P&G. Procter & Gamble suppliers in the plastics industry are well-aware that the Cincinnati firm has a reputation for keeping a tight lid on its employees, and on information.
But Rattray led the way for P&G on solid-waste issues, and the company took some very un-P&G stances in the past few years. For example, the decision to join, and then quit the American Plastics Council - a Washington-based group made up of leading resin suppliers. And then P&G shocked observers again by joining the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers - an association consisting primarily of smaller recycling companies.
Were P&G's solid-waste objectives really more closely aligned with the smaller recyclers pushing to expand their markets, and not with the large resin companies seeking alternatives to recycling?
It was quite a leap, but P&G, and Rattray, made it readily.
Rattray's work served P&G quite well. He pushed for more HDPE recycling to improve and increase the supply of recycled HDPE, which was in a sorry state when he started. He pushed bottle suppliers to use the stuff because P&G wanted to continue to use plastic bottles, and P&G was afraid that adding recycled content was the only way the public would accept plastics.
P&G's decision not to replace Rattray says volumes about the state of plastics recycling in 1996. No longer does this consumer products behemoth feel it necessary to have an individual on the front lines of the solid-waste wars, devoting a career to solid-waste issues.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association can carry the ball for P&G now. Plastics recyclers will miss Rattray more than they realize.
Loepp is managing editor of Plastics News.