What's the plastics industry's reputation? The answer depends on who you're asking.
I asked Plastics News readers a few weeks ago, and I've been blown away by the response. Dozens of readers took the time to fill out my long survey. Others posted comments in my blog, or sent emails and letters.
I think I struck a nerve.
So, how do PN readers feel about the plastics industry? This wasn't a scientific survey, so I don't want to attach too much importance to the raw numbers. But on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best and the tobacco industry as being a 1, most readers think the plastics industry's reputation is a 5 or 6.
But the consensus is that's too low for the benefits that plastics offer modern society.
For example, one engineer wrote: “What's not to like? Plastics provide cost-effective, value-added solutions where 50 years ago it wasn't imaginable. It's impossible in today's society to not be positively affected by plastics. There are infinite design opportunities made possible with plastics, which benefits both the manufacturer as well as the end customer in its versatility.”
A marketing and sales person at a toolmaker had a similar comment: “People love the range of affordable products that are only possible through plastics. Technology products such as smartphones and computers, to home electronics, people like the higher end plastic products that they can afford.”
Another engineer wrote: “They are good materials and solve a lot of problems at the least cost for the most benefit.”
These sorts of comments struck me as being a logical response from people in an industry who believe they're having a positive impact on the world. And they're right — plastics have helped raise the standard of living and helped make products affordable to the mass market. They also help maintain the safety of our food while minimizing spoilage, they help automakers make vehicles more fuel efficient and safer, and they make health care more affordable while preventing the spread of disease.
As one readers put it: “If plastics are evil, put a note on your driver's license that says ‘no plastic' if [you] are dragged unconscious into the emergency room after a bad accident.”
But readers acknowledge that the general public doesn't always see plastics in such a positive light.
Waste and toxicity concerns were the most frequently cited by readers trying to explain why plastics have an image problem.
“The perception is that plastic never breaks down and hogs landfill space,” one person wrote. Along the same lines, someone wrote that the problem was “Pollution — marine or land — and the perception that plastics last forever.”
The harshest criticism came from Stiv Wilson, a prominent environmentalist, who posted this signed comment on my blog:
“Who would want to be a part of an industry that externalizes all of their true costs to the commons? That vehemently opposes any regulation on their products that have been shown to be toxic? That promotes recycling as a solution that they won't pay for? That has the power to create more garbage in water than fish by 2050? That considers innovation as creating new materials that are impossible from a market standpoint to do anything with at the end of life?”
There was more, including promoting single-use products and targeting friendly state legislatures to pass laws outlawing local product bans.
Wilson replied to my concerns about where the plastics industry will find its next generation of workers saying: “People don't want to make a living being the antichrist of their own ecosystem.”
Pretty strong words, and obviously Wilson pays close attention to plastics industry issues and strategies. And PN readers expressed concern with how the general public takes its cues about plastics from environmental critics.
“It is very easy to place the blame on single-use plastics,” one wrote. “People typically do not have time to learn all of the facts and they rely heavily on sound bites.”
Another said: “The uninformed tend to side with the opinion of mainstream media (as with most hot-topic issues) when it comes to ‘hazardous' chemicals found in plastics, despite a lack of hard evidence to ever back the claims.”
As I wrote in my initial column, I don't expect to solve the plastics industry's problems. But it's instructive — and perhaps can be constructive — to share readers' opinions.
Let's keep the dialogue going, and I'll continue to share readers' thoughts and best suggestions.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.