Are you an environmentalist? People outside the industry might be surprised by how many people inside the industry consider themselves among the corps of earth-friendly conservationists.
If fact, outsiders might read that last sentence and laugh. It would be the same sort of laugh they have at the expense of plastics when they watch The Graduate, while many within the industry watch that same movie and think, ``That part about plastics, that's great.''
But being part of the plastics industry and being an environmentalist aren't incongruous at all, and I was reminded of that connection last week at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Global Plastics Environmental Conference in Detroit.
GPEC is one of the plastics industry's most overtly environmental events. This year it included lots of papers on recycling; many focused on the automotive, packaging and electronics markets. Biodegradable plastics and renewable materials also got special attention.
Plenty of recyclers and plastic lumber executives attend GPEC, but that's a fraction of the crowd. It's fascinating to see how many managers and engineers come from original equipment manufacturers (like Hewlett-Packard Co. and Motorola Inc.), compounders, material suppliers, machine makers, universities and, yes, processors.
When I used to cover the fledgling plastics recycling industry a decade ago, I would wonder about the career choices being made by many of the people I was meeting. In the early 1990s, many companies were struggling with how to deal with environmental issues, so they took bright managers and put them in new positions where they were expected to become recycling and regulatory experts.
I wondered then, is that the right career move? I know that some of them had the same question. But the fact that SPE has this GPEC group, and that it is a large and still-growing part of the organization, is proof that environmentalism has become mainstream.
This year, American Plastics Council President Rod Lowman used GPEC to announce that his trade group plans to work with Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society to address the growing problem of plastic debris in the ocean. That's great news, and I hope it's just a first step on that serious issue.
Still, I have to note that this industry doesn't always have the best interest of the environment at heart. For example, key plastics trade groups, including APC, still officially oppose bottle-deposit legislation. They admit such laws are great for plastics recycling, but they fight efforts to introduce deposits in new locations because key customers like Coca-Cola Co. are opposed.
Another disappointment: At Plastics News, we're frustrated each year that so few processors that apply for our Processor of the Year award have anything substantial to say about their environmental record. Has it become an afterthought, or are few financially successful firms doing anything really interesting in recycling these days?
One thing is certain: Any processor that wants to stand out from the crowd could do so by boosting and promoting its environmental record.
Don Loepp is managing editor of Plastics News.