By talking more about the benefits of plastics, Steve Russell hopes the industry can bring balance to the discussions surrounding the safety of chemicals used to make plastics and the debates over whether to ban, tax or enact fees on plastic products.
We are not moving away from our role as defenders against ill-conceived legislation, said Russell, managing director of the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council. That is appropriate and necessary. But in light of how the public feels about the plastics industry, we need to add an additional focus on the benefits of plastics.
You will hear us talk more about the innovations and innovative capacity of the plas- tics industry, Russell said in a June 9 interview, after ACC's annual meeting in Colorado Springs, Colo. That focus will include the topics of energy efficiency, safer vehicles, fresh-food packaging, and lightweight materials that help reduce fuel use by cars.
The public understands that, but it needs to be reminded about how plastics make our lives better, he said.
This summer, the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. is launching its own image-boosting and informational initiative. The initiative, targeted at the millennial generation, will use social media to provide information about plastics issues and benefits that they hope will engage that group, ages 18-28.
In addition, the Canadian Plastics Industry Association at its annual meeting in Toronto on June 17, unveiled an intelligent plastics program aimed at providing information through industry ambassadors and media communication. The effort will showcase plastic innovations that improve the everyday lives of consumers.
Jointly, SPI and Arlington-based ACC launched a pilot ambassador program last summer, with a full-scale rollout set to begin this week at NPE2009 in Chicago.
The initiatives from the three plastics industry associations are individual, distinct endeavors. But SPI and ACC are sharing some research and working together to ensure that their initiatives are complementary and do not overlap.
Like SPI, ACC will use electronic and social media to spread much of its message.
For a long time, we have been defined by the opposition, instead of by what the industry stands for, said Russell. We have to avoid that. There is a need for balance.
There are plenty of negative impressions that plastics winds up in litter or landfills, he said. We want to help people remember the positive benefits of plastics to society and the environment. We think that will create a more favorable environment in which to conduct our adversarial work.
Russell said ACC will concentrate on three key messages: product and market innovations, energy efficiency, and the industry's approaches to environmental solutions.
We intend to talk about how plastics benefit people, whether it is in medical devices or composite resins for aircraft or how plastics continues to reduce transportation costs and help reduce energy and fuel use, he said.
He also stressed the industry's need to partner with others.
To demonstrate how plastics improve energy efficiency in the automotive industry, we have to work with [original equipment manufacturers] and Tier 1 suppliers, he said. With recycling, we have to work with governments, material suppliers and brand owners and also emphasize the cooperative partnerships we have formed with groups like the California State Parks and Keep America Beautiful to build a recycling infrastructure.
We want to communicate that this industry is more than willing to be part of the environmental solution. Industry goals include reducing marine debris and litter, increasing recycling and addressing life-cycle and end-of-life issues, he added.
He said the industry is proud that it has helped to make recycling more available for plastic bags, and that there have been so few bans and taxes enacted.
Legislators nationwide have largely rejected fees and bans on plastic bags.
Overall, we are pleased, Russell said. The most important message we can deliver to these legislators is the acknowledgment that we want to do the right thing for the environment, and that there are ways to do that that are good for consumer choice and good for the environment.
We have to emphasize that it costs less energy to make, transport and recycle plastic bags [than paper bags] and that these bags can be reused and that they can be converted to energy at the end of their life, Russell said. Those aspects are very important to policy makers.
The challenges of creating a favorable environment for discussions around environmental issues and product bans are enormous, but Russell said the challenge of combating taxes proposed to meet budget shortfalls is even greater.
It is one thing to have a discussion around environmental decisions. But it is even harder to have a discussion around budgets, he said. When the decision is around taxes and budget shortfalls, you need to build a coalition around the people most affected by the tax and let them speak.
But the biggest challenge remains how to deal effectively when issues are raised about the safety of chemicals used to make plastic products, he said.
There is a very motivated sector of the public that doesn't trust industry, that doesn't like chemicals and that believe that there are no known safe levels for chemicals, and they have an increasingly receptive audience, Russell said. So it is much more difficult for us to deliver messages about the nuances around risk.
We have to communicate more with policy makers about risk trade-offs, communicate with customers about whether there are alternate materials and communicate with a public that sometimes doesn't want to hear about complex scientific issues, he said.