The packaging industry's race toward sustainability in 2008 has resulted in a lot of intra-business conferences, but not a commitment toward eco-friendly practices that is readily apparent to consumers, a leading packaging educator said.
In an Oct. 17 telephone interview, Susan Selke, professor and acting director of Michigan State University's school of packaging, said plastics processors in particular continue to suffer from an image problem.
``It really doesn't help when you've got national news people saying, `If it's No. 7 [the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. resin code for ``Other''], it's got bisphenol A in it.' It is in the interest of polymer producers who are not using BPA to let that be known,'' Selke said.
``I think if [the plastics industry] really wants to change the perception of consumers, the best thing they can do is to implement wider ranging and true recycling options,'' she said. ``I believe it is feasible to recycle economically a lot more plastic materials than we currently do. But it takes an investment to get the systems up and running and to tweak the properties of the materials so they fit into markets because obviously you have to have new products to make at the end of it.''
Selke, who in 2009 will be researching and writing a new edition of her 1990 book Packaging and the Environment: Alternatives, Trends and Solutions, said much has changed since the text on packaging waste and recycling was last updated in 1994. For one thing, corporate America has warmed considerably to environmentalists with some qualifications.
``There are companies that are trying to do the right thing,'' Selke said. ``There are other companies that are seeing the environmental movement as just another way to do product positioning and don't really care about the environmental movement, as long as they can make their product sound green.''
Most of the impetus for sustainable change in North American packaging continues to be driven by major retailers, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. with its packaging scorecard and The Home Depot Inc., which has developed criteria for ``environmentally preferred product labeling,'' Selke said.
Speaking two weeks before the U.S. elections, Selke said regardless of who would win the presidency, the advent of a new administration would be unlikely to produce immediate short-term scrutiny by Washington of packagers' environmental claims or to result in legislators suggesting new bag bans, a nationwide bottle bill or sweeping waste-reduction directives.
A slumping global economy means the U.S. is unlikely to adopt Europe's Extended Producer Responsibility system where packaging manufacturers pay for costs of waste collection and recycling of their products or the Asian model exemplified by China's decision this year to ban ultrathin plastic bags, she said.
``What I do think we're going to have in the fairly new future is something on greenhouse-gas emissions,'' Selke said. ``Whether it's something involving carbon offsets or something else, packaging will no doubt be affected.''
Although glass and metal have maintained market share in applications such as food and beverage packaging, plastics will continue to make inroads, Selke said, and may become a key ingredient of consumer recycling and reuse behavior.
``Plastics do have real advantages and consumers do appreciate those advantages. Even something like the plastic grocery sack: When I go to scoop up the mess my puppy leaves on the lawn, I don't really want to use paper. There certainly are applications where plastics works and paper doesn't because you get more product delivered safely and it's easier to handle,'' she said.