Since Steve Russell took over as managing director of the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council, the group has dealt with more than 400 pieces of anti-plastics legislation.
``The critics of the industry have gotten louder and continued to gain traction. The challenges facing us today are greater than a year ago,'' Russell said in an interview at ACC's annual meeting in Palm Desert last month.
Seattle, Los Angeles County and California, for example, all are considering proposals to tax plastic bags. Fifteen communities have enacted bans on polystyrene takeout containers in the past two years.
The list continues with an initiative in California to ban PVC packaging; pressure on retailers to reduce or eliminate some products for infants made from PVC; phthalate bans; and the response of retailers to potential health concerns about bisphenol A.
But Russell pointed out the industry's progress. Just three plastic bag bans out of more than 100 proposals have been enacted. He also touts an ACC initiative that has placed 529 recycling bins on 25 state beaches since November.
Still, he knows there is a lot more to do.
``We need to bring more resources to [the challenges] and have a more broad-based uniform voice within the plastics industry, with the resin companies and all the other companies at the table working together,'' Russell said. ``We have to find new and better ways to cooperate together to meet advocacy challenges and to address public concerns.''
To advance this, he said his division is examining opportunities to work together with the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
``I am really very excited about several opportunities for SPI and the plastics division to work together,'' he said, without elaborating. ``Clearly, we are stronger together.''
Even when speaking with one voice, he said, the industry must recognize each challenge is unique and requires a customized approach.
``Consumers in the retail sector don't want to wait for the outcome of scientific assessments or government decisions,'' Russell said. ``Our challenge is to provide timely, accurate and succinct information so [retail] chains can make a good decision, and at the end of the day, feel that the products they sell are safe.''
The plastics division recently hired Tom Carter as its managing director for retail sustainability. ``It is his job to establish and maintain strong long-term relationships with retail customers, to understand their information needs and give them a full range of information at their fingertips,'' Russell said.
Legislatively, particularly with plastic bags, the challenge is getting in the discussion, he said.
``We are almost always successful when given the opportunity to engage in a real debate and when we have the opportunity to present solid life-cycle analysis,'' he said, pointing to the number of cities and states that have adopted mandatory plastic bag recycling after initially considering bans.
Communicating with the public presents different challenges that the industry is still learning to address, Russell said.
``Most people don't have a history of the plastics industry and don't know one resin from another,'' he said.
However, he said, the public can easily understand how plastics benefit their lives, pointing to energy efficiency; stronger, lighter-weight packaging; and auto components that help increase gas mileage.
When health claims are involved, the industry has to produce more than just ``sound science.''
``When the audience is policymakers or regulators, you have to bring sound science to the table,'' he said. ``The products out there have to be tested and found safe.
``But when the consumer has a belief pattern, sound science isn't nearly enough. You have to have sound science, a demonstrated track record and the opinion of respected disinterested third parties.''
He points to the uproar in April over BPA polycarbonate bottles as an example.
``Information got out in the public concern before sound science could catch up, and once something gathers enough steam to be accepted as fact, it is almost impossible to change the opinion of people who get their opinions from digital media,'' he said.
The Arlington, Va.-based group has a Web site where it presents its side of many of the plastic issues.
``The challenge is that our critics aren't always interested in a discussion or presenting all sides,'' Russell said. ``So whether it is on the Web or in responding on an issue, we want to make sure our response is fact-based and defensible which presents a challenge in terms of responding quickly. We are not shying away, but it has been more difficult when the allegations are so off-base.''
Despite all the challenges, Russell is pleased with what the industry has achieved in one year. He said the group has made progress in being more aggressive and promoting the benefits of plastics.
But Russell said he was most proud of the industry starting to ``put its money where its mouth is in terms of support for recycling.''
In addition to the bins on California beaches, he said the ACC is in discussions with California state officials ``to dramatically increase the amount of material collected in communities in California and along California highways.''
Russell also said ACC was looking to expand the program to other states. We are not moving forward as quickly as we hoped,'' he said. ``We have found out that rolling out a national campaign takes a lot of time.
``But we will get there because fundamentally, everyone gets the need for recycling and the importance of keeping recycling material out of landfills,'' Russell said.