Guangzhou, China — Amid stepped up government concern about marine litter and plastic waste, the top executive at PlasticsEurope said the trade association is having a "controversial" internal debate about supporting efforts to encourage consumers to use fewer plastic bags.
Karl-H. Foerster, executive director of the Brussels-based group, compared the efforts to responsible drinking campaigns in the alcohol industry. He said joining efforts to reduce single-use bag use could give the plastics industry more credibility.
Foerster revealed the debate within the European group at a meeting of global executives to discuss plastics marine pollution, held alongside the Chinaplas trade fair in Guangzhou.
"The question here was, if we rethink where our position [is], where in principle we defend all the applications for plastics, would we not be better off if we moved a bit and actually joined the effort to reduce the usage of plastic bags?" he told a May 17 meeting of the World Plastics Council.
Like the alcohol industry's responsible drinking campaigns, he said it would improve public perception of the plastics industry.
"They have drink responsibly campaigns, which gives them credibility because people say, 'Oh it is against their business interest, because normally we would expect they try to sell as much as possible,'" he said. "But obviously, they are able to think for the health and the better conditions for people, and thereby giving the industry a certain credibility.
"The same would apply if we as plastics industry would also participate in such an initiative," he said. "So that was the debate, that was the discussion. There was no conclusion."
In his comments to the WPC meeting, Foerster stressed that PlasticsEurope, which represents European resin producers, had not come to a decision. But he noted that the problem of plastic in the oceans is getting more attention.
"The polymer marine litter issue has risen on the agenda for governments around the world," he said. The issue has prompted debate within the industry group.
"At our last steering board we had a very intensive and controversial discussion among our steering board members in Europe," he said.
He said PlasticsEurope is not in favor of governments banning plastic bags, which he said can be an attractive idea to them because they can "look very decisive that they are battling the issue," and a ban doesn't cost them any money.
But, in comments to Plastics News during a break in the Guangzhou meeting, Foerster said PlasticsEurope, while opposing outright bans, supports charging fees for plastics bags.
"One of our proposals has always been to charge for bags and don't give them out for free," he said. "Not a ban of course, that doesn't make sense either, that's not a solution again. But charging for bags, it increases reuse. It promotes responsible use of it and it's a very effective measure to change citizens' behavior because we have no interest of course that people start littering plastic bags into an environment," he said.
Foerster told the meeting that long-term solutions like waste management programs and citizen education are preferable, but he said they may not be as attractive to governments because they require financial investment or time.
Foerster characterized PlasticsEurope's internal debate as a positive.
"I think it's of course positive because it means that the industry is quite aware of changing demands from society, from the political side," he said.
He compared it to the industry group previously changing its position to become more supportive of plastics recycling.
"For example, today we have a clear view on increasing the rate of recycling of plastics. A few years ago, that was not a uniform opinion from the industry," he said.
"We are establishing new ways to work, all as part of our support of the circular economy, because in principle we think that's a good thing and plastics play a major role in that," he said.
Foerster's comments got a lukewarm reception from WPC members.
He said his board wanted him to raise the topic and get feedback from WPC members, including executives from the North American and Asian resin suppliers. WPC's meeting was focused on industry responses to marine litter.
Foerster told the group that plastic bags in litter hurt the image of the industry.
"Wherever you see litter, the plastic bag is the first item that you see," he said. "Of course, that's not good for the image of our industry, it's not good for the acceptance of plastic as a material, as opposed to glass, metal or other materials."