(Feb. 19, 2007) — Ever try to hit a moving target — while wearing a blindfold? That must be how some plastics industry officials in California feel when it comes to staying abreast of environmentally oriented legislation that could render some mainstream plastics packaging products illegal or severely restrict their use.
Various bills, bans and proposals are swirling, with some getting real traction, especially in San Francisco. And occasionally new initiatives or language revisions seem to appear out of thin air. Before those of you in the other 49 states flip the page, assuming this doesn't affect you, think again. Such actions in California often help set the precedent for similar efforts outside the Golden State. Has anybody noticed our recent coverage related to rigid-container recycling legislation in both Oregon and New Jersey?
The plastics industry as a whole — not just bottle blow molders, clamshell thermoformers and bag converters — must do a few things: Be aware not only of legislative initiatives but of the prevailing winds of public sentiment; take these initiatives seriously (no matter how much you may wish to dismiss the science behind them); and take the offensive.
By the last point, I do not mean only trying to block proposed laws that might take money out of your pocket. I also mean being environmentally proactive, accepting some responsibility for being part of the problem and working aggressively to address the issue positively. This involves some acceptance that a pro-environmental approach may cost money to enact, but that it is the responsible thing to do and can be good for business in the long run.
Some in the industry — notably the Progressive Bag Alliance, with the strong support of the California Film Extruders & Converters Association and others — have done all of the above. The rest of the industry needs to join the effort.
Some may question why I invited environmental activist Stephanie Barger, head of the Earth Resource Foundation, to speak at our upcoming Plastics News Executive Forum in San Diego. After all, isn't she “the enemy,” having helped to launch the Campaign Against the Plastic Plague, which aims to phase out single-use plastics packaging?! Why give her a platform from which to spew anti-plastics rhetoric?
No, Stephanie is not the enemy. She is a passionate advocate of sustainable business practices that minimize damage to the earth and our environment. I certainly don't agree with all her positions or tactics, but that's irrelevant. Her words and those of many other green-minded groups often resonate with lawmakers, so ignore them at your peril. Generally speaking, environmental groups do a better job of selling their case than the plastics industry does.
Open, respectful dialogue and relationship building are key elements to resolving disputes and making progress. If anything, I wish I had invited more environmentalists to take part in this public debate before a plastics audience. Such interaction is healthy, whereas isolation is not.
That said, there are irrational zealots on both sides of the fence. When anyone promotes inaccurate or bad science to back up their position, they need to be called on it. One should respond by laying out the facts and being vocal about it. But also recognize that industry is at an inherent disadvantage in this debate. Industry's motivations, no matter how well-grounded in reason and fact, often are dismissed by some as corporate greed.
That's why manufacturers, their trade associations and related parties need to go the extra yard to do the right thing. You can support your industry fervently without being an apologist who denies responsibility for that industry's misdeeds and sloppy practices.
Maybe it's not your fault that our society uses and throws away too much stuff. (I mean, really — disposable cameras and cell phones?) But perhaps you can help the cause by striving to make certain products more recyclable by minimizing the number of materials used in them or by designing them for easier disassembly.
Some in the plastics industry are doing excellent work to further the cause of sustainable environmental practices that also contribute to the bottom line. But, unfortunately, they are in the minority. It's time to change that, before it's too late.