TAIZHOU, CHINA — Asia's plastics industry may not yet be facing the kind of pressure governments are putting on European industry to address human health and marine litter problems, but the region needs to pay attention early or risk more bans and other restrictions, the head of Europe's leading plastics association told a meeting of Asian leaders.
Wilfried Haensel, executive director of Brussels-based PlasticsEurope, said those issues are creating strong pressure in the West for banning or deselecting plastics in favor of other materials. He warned a meeting of the Asia Plastics Forum, an umbrella group of 12 national trade associations stretching from India to China and Japan, not to be complacent.
"You in some countries may not sense at the moment the heat on marine litter but in other places it is there," he said. "We have to be aware in Europe and I would say in the U.S., the pressure on de-selection and bans is definitely increasing. We see a ramp-up and I am afraid more will come."
At the APF meeting, held Sept. 25-26 in Taizhou, the Asian associations named Callum Chen, a Malaysian industry executive and secretary general of APF, as the region's top representative to a global industry steering committee on marine litter. He joins Haensel and Steve Russell, the vice president of plastics for the Washington-based American Chemistry Council.
In his presentation, Haensel said globally the industry will have 140 marine litter related projects this year, up from 100 in 2011.
He said Asian countries did 25 percent of the projects, while Europe, the Middle East and Africa were responsible for 40 percent and North and South America 35 percent.
He encouraged the Asian associations to engage in more programs, and he noted that PlasticsEurope and ACC were contributing $430,000 over four years to a United Nations scientific advisory body, the Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Pollution.
"I would hope that next time I come we would see that Asia has a share of 33 percent of the total" projects, he said. "I would like to encourage you to participate in it. This is one of the very few examples where we have managed to establish a global cooperation in the plastics industry."
In general, he and other speakers at the forum said that Asian governments are mostly pressuring their industries on waste management and litter.
But in his two hours of presentations at the APF, Haensel also sought to pivot attention toward sustainability and chemical health, arguing that those are becoming bigger issues in Europe and North America and will come to Asia.
"We may think this is a little bit down the road in some countries but it is a globalized world," he said. "That means any issue that is happening in this world is picked up by others. Also your export markets are facing this problem more than you may be facing it here."
He said the chemical health issues will require industry to communicate more thoroughly, and he suggested they could pose a more important longer-term challenge for the industry than solid waste.
"The other more important aspect that I think we have to take more seriously… is the story about chemicals and plastics and the poisoning suspicions by consumers about using plastics," he said. "That is something where we are playing with emotions. That is something that is extremely difficult to address."
In a follow-up interview after his speech, he also linked in concerns about potential human health risks from nano-materials, and said if health concerns, whether from endocrine disrupting chemicals, nano-technology or other issues, are not addressed, they could hurt the industry's long-term economic growth.
"If you don't take action in Europe, serious action, you will lose more from bans and de-selection of plastics than you will gain in new applications coming from innovation — we have to be very careful," he said.
"In particular when you talking about innovation you are talking about nano-materials, you are talking about highly sensitive applications in medical, name it," said Haensel. "All these are of a dimension where people are normally getting scared. They are scared about the personal health aspects."
If the public concerns are not addressed, Haensel believes that it could harm the plastics industry's development prospects.
"We have to take action in two regards — we have to address the concerns of the people seriously, and accept that there are concerns and not try to talk this away," he said. "The second is we have to build trust for the new innovation."
"If we are missing out on nano, we will have a tremendous problem to realize innovative applications that are key in the future not only for social development, but also for our industry," he said.
He said European government officials have told him the industry has three basic challenges with public issues.
"In plastics you can boil it down to three simple areas where we are having problems," Haensel said. "That is what a high-ranking policy maker from the EU Commission told me: 'You are killing people because they believe you have toxic substances in your material. You are using up scarce resources, depletion of oil, and you are ruining the environment by littering.'"