(May 23, 2008) — Is recycling enough? When the plastics industry comes under fire, the answer in the past has been, “Let's recycle more, and the critics will go away.”
But that doesn't work anymore.
Manufacturers of certain plastics products — grocery bags, polystyrene food-service goods, and PET water bottles — have come under pressure in the past year. The complainers have been very clear about what they don't like about plastics. But, somehow, many in the plastics industry don't seem to understand.
Plastics executives talk about the energy savings that plastics allow, and lower greenhouse-gas emissions of plastics compared with competing materials, and they think they've won the debate. They talk about how plastics are recyclable, and think they've covered all the bases. They're looking at the big picture, and they're true believers in the superiority of plastics to alternative materials.
But looking at the big picture misses the point.
Plastics industry critics, including many state and local lawmakers, are focusing on single issues. With grocery bags, PS food service and PET water bottles, the problem is litter. This plastic stuff is all over the place. Go to a beach or river cleanup, or drive down a country road, a suburban boulevard or a city street, and what do you see? Plastic trash.
There's a growing public awareness of the patch of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean. Most of it is plastic, and it's a threat to marine and bird life.
This issue isn't going away, because the floating mass isn't going away. As it grows in size, public pressure to do something about it will grow, too. In the coming months, you'll see it in TV reports, documentaries and newspaper stories. Eventually, someone will have to do something about it. Will the plastics industry have a role in creating a solution?
Some might argue that litter isn't an industry problem. They have a point. Litter is a consumer problem. People need to stop treating the world like a trash can. But critics think industry needs to play a much bigger role.
For industry to succeed, it has to provide solutions that keep its products from becoming litter. That is the only answer. In partnership with others, the plastics industry needs to set up collection infrastructures at the retailers, restaurants, fast-food outlets, school, universities and public arenas where 90 percent of those products are handed out. Then collect it and recycle it back in closed-loop systems, or send it to companies that need the raw material to make durable products.
Just saying a product is recyclable isn't enough. Of course plastics are recyclable. But critics have no confidence in industry's recycling programs because they generally aren't comprehensive enough, even when mandated.
Like it or not, we're living in world where people focus on one issue and make decisions that might not make sense to those of us who look at the bigger picture. Recycling advocacy is part of that picture, but just won't be enough until the industry starts helping pick up the litter.