For the plastics industry to be viewed as a good environmental steward, it is going to have to demonstrate a commitment to resolving marine debris and litter issues and to improving recycling, said Steve Russell, managing director of the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council.
The industry also must work together with other industry associations, and encourage employees to get involved in communities to discuss the benefits of plastics by talking to community groups and elected officials, he said in a June 23 interview at NPE2009 in Chicago.
It is the most challenging environment we have ever seen, said Russell. It is absolutely essential that we be defined by what we do.
Russell said that includes taking care of the environment at manufacturing sites, which the plastics industry already has tried to address with Operation Clean Sweep, its program to prevent resin spills that eventually end up in waterways and storm sewers.
We need to raise the visibility of that program and the profile of good stewardship, he said. If we can't demonstrate that we care about our own business, we have no credibility in a broader environment. We want to be defined as good product stewards. Good stewardship will not end the public discussion of plastics, but is merely the price of admission to the discussions surrounding plastics, said Russell.
Presently, roughly 140 companies have pledged to abide by the principles of the OCS program of the Arlington, Va.-based ACC and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., based in Washington.
We [need] to get those numbers up, Russell said. This is not an area where we have focused a significant amount of attention until now, but we are going to address this with more vigor because, in spite of our good efforts, pellets continue to turn up with waterways, oceans, beaches and storm sewers.
We are working with our trade association colleagues in Europe, Asia and the rest of the Americas, because as this issue of plastics in a marine environment becomes more and more of a marine debris issue, it becomes a global issue, he said. We are serious about pellet containment and being good stewards. Our objective is not to push a particular solution, but to find approaches that are most effective for a given situation. That approach could be voluntary, regulatory or legislative, he said.
After a lengthy, acrimonious split among the different plastics industry associations that culminated in the breakup of the SPI and the American Plastics Council which is now the plastics division of ACC the industry is working together once more on issues that encompass more than the problem of marine debris.
It is incredibly gratifying to demonstrate to this industry at NPE2009 the degree to which ACC and SPI are working together to solve the challenges we all face. The feedback we have received on that direction has been overwhelmingly positive, Russell said.
SPI and ACC's plastics division have been meeting quarterly since last fall to discuss issues of common concern. They also are working together on the plastics ambassadors program that was rolled out nationwide at NPE after pilots in Texas, California and Illinois that began last fall.
The two associations also have shared research as each embarks on an educational campaign designed to raise public awareness about the benefits of plastics; and to combat negative perceptions raised by product bans and taxes, and health risks associated with some chemicals used to make plastics, such as bisphenol A.
Each association took a slightly different tack, Russell said. But, he added, We both found that the public is receptive and wants to hear about the benefits of plastics. ... SPI is taking on the challenge of reaching the millennial generation. That is critically important and fits well with ACC's approach to position the industry to best reach consumers and policy makers.
Also, ACC and SPI are hoping to aggressively grow the plastics ambassador program, which currently has nine ambassadors in the three pilot states, as well as one in Pennsylvania, Russell said.
We are not building a national program. The national program is now in place. The long-term success of that program will depend on the willingness of people to speak up and be volunteers, and on the help the industry gives its ambassadors, he noted.
If we get 50 active, highly motivated ambassadors, we will be thrilled. But having said that, we wouldn't mind hundreds, either, Russell said. What we do expect will happen is that there will be pockets or regions with more ambassadors, as this is an industry that is a bit regional.
A password-protected Web site, plasticsambassador.com, provides ambassadors with talking points, fact sheets, data summaries, frames individual issues for them, and provides information on how to start a community dialogue, contact elected officials, engage digital media, and write an op-ed or letter to legislators. It also provides them with a list of hot bills in each state.
The premise is obviously relatively simple, Russell said. It is to take our industry's employees and give them the tools to talk about plastics in a way that empowers them and their companies. Our job is to help them to deliver messages about the benefits of plastics.
He said the pilot program underscored the interest in the project and helped ACC and SPI expand the ways that industry employees can get involved.
When we have tried similar things in the past, there have been fits and starts, but there is a strong interest now, Russell said. That strong interest most likely was driven by the acute problems now facing the industry, the rise of social media as a form of communication and the growing national debate involving plastics, he said.
But the most-common motivation for plastics industry ambassadors is: They feel that the story of their industry isn't being fully told and that the public doesn't understand the benefits of plastics, as advocates of anti-plastic agendas have been effective in getting their story out.
Getting the message out isn't just about writing letters to the editors or getting involved in legislative activities, he said.
It is also about talking to the science clubs at schools, the PTA or talking at the community level about recycling. This provides us a nice link to talk about the benefits of plastics in improving food safety [and] making vehicles safer, he said.
Despite plastics' many benefits, the industry's ability to improve recycling remains critical to its image.
The plastics industry now has 529 bins on California beaches through a partnership with the state Department of Recreation and Keep America Beautiful. And it is working to form a similar relationship with the California Department of Transportation to get recycling bins on state highways.
There is a great need for increased access to away-from-home recycling. Partnerships are a key part of this, he said.
The industry also faces the challenge of an Aug. 18 vote in Seattle on whether to place a 20-cent tax on single-use plastic bags.
It is important because of the size of the city, because Seattle deeply cares about the environment and because it is not a council vote, but a referendum, said Russell. So it is an important referendum in many ways. What is critically important is having local people at the table articulating what the impact will be for them. It is not enough for resin suppliers to make a stand. We need others in the value chain to do that.
ACC estimates that the tax would cost Seattle resident $300 a year.