WASHINGTON — The plastics industry is seeing its image slip lately in public opinion polls, with more people holding unfavorable opinions about plastics manufacturers and voicing concerns about environmental problems.
Polling data from the American Plastics Council, which conducts a $17 million ad campaign, indicates it still is making progress in its goal of making people more pro-plastics and boosting some environmental opinions, and messages of health, safety and medical benefits remain very effective in persuading the public.
But the results also have shown dips in public opinion, including on environmental questions:
Twenty-seven percent of people surveyed said they had an unfavorable opinion of plastics in 1997, up from 22 percent in 1996.
A broad overall rating of industry's favorability took a small but statistically significant drop below that of competing materials in the last six months of 1997, as did other rankings of environmental attitudes.
The percentage of people saying there are ``serious disposal and/or environmental problems associated with plastics'' rose to 69 percent in 1997, up from less than 60 percent in 1996, according to a source close to APC.
Taken together, the results prompted the American Plastics Council to increase its advertising spending by $1 million in December and January, spending money it initially planned to use later this year.
But what caused the downturn? APC points to less spending on advertising, and possibly the impact of advertising by competing materials. The organization has cut its ad spending 10 percent a year for two years, down to $17 million, as the steel and aluminum industries have launched efforts. The Washington-based Aluminum Association started a $14 million effort in November aimed at meeting a 75 percent recycling goal.
``We believe there is a correlation between that cut in the budget and the decline, [but] these were not major slippages,'' said Don Olsen, senior vice president of public affairs for Huntsman Corp. in Salt Lake City and an active member of APC's advertising effort. ``These are statistically significant. We are certainly not in the dumps, by any stretch.''
One former APC official, however, said the detailed polling results reflect public skepticism about the industry's environmental commitment.
``Those [environmental] messages aren't going to click with the American public until the public is convinced the plastics industry is committed to recycling,'' said Bailey Condrey, who left as director of advertising and new media at APC in November.
The recycling rates for plastic bottles and rigid containers dropped in 1996, including that of the mainstay material, PET.
But Susan Moore, APC vice president of communications, said the industry has done polling about declining recycling rates and found the public ``is not as outraged as people thought.''
Lance King, spokesman for the Grass Roots Recycling Network of Athens, Ga., said people are becoming more aware of problems in plastics recycling. These include recycling plants shutting down, efforts by groups such as GRRN to get Coke to use recycled content in PET and the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund's critique of plastics recycling.
But none of those campaigns have had a big impact, he said.
``I don't know of a single campaign, or two or three, that has reached the levels of concern that would account for this,'' King said.
APC officials said the drop in numbers could be reversed by the additional spending, and they said the public opinion changes are not enough to mean more-restrictive legislation or consumers choosing alternatives to plastics in the near future, unless the downward signs are left unchecked.
And they note the results still show many positives: The industry still is faring much better than when its advertising began in 1992, and messages of the health, safety and medical benefits of plastics remain strong.
The environmental news was not all bad. Recyclability still is the positive attribute most frequently identified by the public, APC surveys show. And 1997 also marked the first time a majority of people disagreed with the statement: ``Plastic products are the single most important cause of the solid waste disposal problems.''
APC's print advertisements do raise environmental messages. But, Moore said, it is hard to convey environmental benefit messages in television ads because those must point out personal benefits, such as health or safety, people will remember, she said.
``Our challenge from day one has been environmental, but the research has revealed that the most effective way to sway public opinion is with health and safety messages,'' she said. ``It is very hard to make the environmental message stick.''
Huntsman's Olsen said he and other members of APC would like to see the mass-media advertising effort ``take these environmental messages head-on.''
The data comes from extensive benchmark polling conducted by the American Plastics Council late last year, the first since 1992, and from ongoing opinion-tracking research. The most recent results came from surveying 1,506 people in midsummer and 1,200 in November.