Kevin Kelly doesn't make the plastic grocery bags, polystyrene takeout containers or plastic pellets most frequently cited as sources of the marine debris that has triggered plastics bans in California.
But the chief executive officer of Emerald Packaging Inc. said the plastics industry needs to realize the issue is not going away in California and has the potential to spread anti-plastics sentiment across the country.
``The industry has to do something or face an assault across the country, not just in California,'' said Kelly, who runs a family-owned business in Union City, Calif., that makes printed plastic bags for lettuce, carrots, potatoes and other produce. Kelly also is vice president and a past president of the California Film Extruders and Converters Association in Newport Beach, Calif.
``This is a challenge that we have to meet. We have to all sit down and hammer out a partnership to counteract this before it is too late,'' Kelly said Nov. 2 by phone.
To that end, Kelly joined with a group of plastic manufacturers, distributors and recyclers in August to form the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling, which has filed lawsuits challenging plastic bag bans in Fairfax and Oakland, Calif.
``There is so much misinformation about plastic bags that someone has to say, `Time out - let's really look at what the impact of banning plastics is,''' Kelly said. ``Plastic bags have, quite unfortunately, become the metaphor of a wasteful society. It sounds progressive and it looks like you are dealing with the problem, but if you ban them, it just means greater volume of other materials going into landfills.''
Kelly's passion has led him to criticize the two major industry associations - the American Chemistry Council and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
In the November/December CFECA newsletter, he criticized SPI for not mounting a grass-roots effort among manufacturers to fight the legislation, chided ACC for its failure to conduct research to confirm or rebut claims made by environmentalists, and took the industry to task for its failure to combine its strengths and work together to counter the threat.
``The mighty American Chemistry Council has completely failed to sponsor or undertake the research necessary to confirm or rebut claims made by environmentalists that largely drive the anti-plastics mood,'' he wrote.
``It is also hard to see what the Society of Plastics Industries has done. ... Its members still seem bewildered by the wave that is toppling them. ... Even CFECA hasn't gone far enough. ... One of the clear problems up and down the chain of associations is that we have not combined our obvious strengths to build a path forward.''
Kelly has moderated his criticism somewhat since he wrote that column, and now he is urging SPI and APC to unite with CFECA and the Progressive Bag Alliance to ``extricate our industry from this mess.'' SPI and APC officials declined to comment for this story.
He said he is encouraged by the $2.5 million public education campaign and recycling and marine debris initiatives of the plastics division of Arlington, Va.-based ACC that were launched Nov. 1.
``What I'm hearing right now gives me a lot of hope,'' said Kelly, referring to ACC's reaching out to groups like CFECA, PBA and SPI. ``We all have different resources and if we combine them and get everyone on the same page, it can only be good.
``We all have different ideas on how to approach the problems facing the industry. Working out those differences is going to be the challenge,'' he said.
Ultimately, he said the plastics industry will need to address the issue of marine debris.
``The reality of the swatch of plastics found in the Pacific gyre and the fact that we have so much more coastline here in California makes the public perception of marine debris so much more different'' than elsewhere, Kelly said.
``That activity around marine issues has brought to the forefront in California a high level of examination of the role of plastics in pollution,'' he said.
But how the plastics industry deals with fighting debris in the Pacific is a complicated question.
``This is a big issue and gets into the sheer hypocrisy of the U.S. consumer who wants to be environmentally pure, but whose appetite for goods is being satisfied by countries'' that have environmental, safety and labor standards much more lax than in the U.S., he said.
He doesn't dismiss the amount of plastics waste in the gyre, though he questions its size and what countries are most responsible for the floating mass.
``I believe that stuff is around,'' Kelly said. ``But we have to figure out where this [plastics] mess in the Pacific gyre is coming from. If it is waste from Asia and China, the solution doesn't lie in the U.S. or among U.S. plastics product manufacturers.
``Beating up U.S. producers may make people feel good, but ultimately, it doesn't solve the problem. If factories overseas are dumping pollution into the atmosphere, I don't know what U.S. producers can do about that,'' he said.
``But we have to address it and do something about it if we want to survive.''