Remember when solid waste issues seemed to threaten the very existence of the plastics industry? Last week brought more news that confirms the profound changes that the plastics packaging and recycling industries have experienced in the past year. The pioneering Plastic Recycling Alliance will shut down Feb. 1. The Chicago operation — once a joint venture of DuPont Co. and Waste Management Inc., but now a unit of ITW Inc. — has recycled plastic bottles since 1989. In the same week came two unrelated items from Washington: The Council on Packaging in the Environment and the Council of Northeastern Governors' source reduction office both will close by year's end.
COPE and CONEG have been important parts of the alphabet soup of special interest associations active in the plastics industry. COPE was an industry-supported effort that got its start defending plastics packaging's position in the market — it initially was known as COPPE, or the Council on Plastics and Packaging in the Environment. CONEG, a quasi-governmental body, got involved to encourage industry to reduce solid waste and heavy metals in packaging.
Three months ago, after a flurry of similar news seemed to foreshadow the death—or at least the precipitous decline—of the plastics recycling industry, the natural question seemed to be, what's next? Though we now have an answer, the question still stands.
For some elements in the plastics business, the natural reaction is to declare victory. Many in the industry argued that the solid waste crisis was a sham, and plastics were targeted unfairly by environmentalists, legislators and a public that did not know better.
The extinction of groups such as COPE makes sense, simply because plastics are no longer the focus of heavy legislative activity. There is no need for such institutions to survive in perpetuity.
But the disappearance of the recycling infrastructure, and possibly of industry support for recycling, is much more troubling. When the industry was under pressure, it took many steps not because it was forced to do so, but because leaders figured they were the right things to do. To turn away now from those efforts is certainly short-sighted, and appears callous to outsiders.