Should the plastics industry pay for advertising or education to get consumers to use fewer plastic bags, like how the alcohol industry sponsors "drink responsibly" ads to encourage less drinking?
That's the question the industry trade group PlasticsEurope asked last month.
The Brussels-based group, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the polymer production in the 28 countries of the European Union, plus Norway, Switzerland and Turkey, posed the question to a gathering of global executives at the Chinaplas trade fair.
It's a good question, and I don't think it's one the U.S. industry would even bring up in public.
The fact that the Europeans are debating it shows the tougher political environment they face. In Europe, if more fees or restrictions on plastic bags are inevitable, a politically savvy move would be to get in front with efforts like this.
The top executive of the European group phrased it in very business-centric way: bags are the first item people see in litter and that's not good for the acceptance of plastic and its competitiveness against other materials.
In a decision that would surprise some in the U.S. industry, the European plastics group is also OK with fees on plastic bags.
According to Executive Director Karl-H. Foerster, PlasticsEurope opposes bag bans but says fees on plastic bags are fine. They're a good way to send a signal and "promote responsible use," he said.
Foerster said he thought the internal debate over supporting campaigns to reduce bag use — while "controversial" within PlasticsEurope — was positive because it demonstrated that "the industry is quite aware of changing demands from society, from the political side."
In his comments, he said such an effort could bring the plastics industry more credibility.
I covered the forum in China where PlasticsEurope raised the topic. I should note there wasn't a lengthy discussion. Foerster raised it briefly at the end of a meeting devoted to another topic, so it wasn't as if the pros and cons were fully aired.
And he emphasized that PlasticsEurope has not made a final decision.
In my opinion, efforts to discourage bags and other single-use packaging are generally good. Packaging has important health or safety benefits, of course, but sometimes there's too much of it.
The way I see the 3 Rs of the waste hierarchy — reduce, reuse and recycle — they should be done in that order, that reducing is preferable to recycling.
That makes advertising campaigns to "bag responsibly" or fees on bags or other single use packaging, aimed at reducing their use, a good thing.
I've lived in places that put fees on bags, it's a small thing, and I appreciated the nudge toward less waste.
Previous columns I've written endorsing restrictions on plastic bags have gotten strong push back from some of our readers. I get that it's a controversial topic.
But here's another take: if the industry moves away from reflexively defending single-use applications of plastics, like free bags or all forms of free takeout packaging, it would then have more credibility to make the broader case for plastics.
It's similar to a point made by Wim Roels, an executive with polyolefins supplier Borouge, in a 2015 interview. He questioned whether there's a future for something like a thin-wall t-shirt bag and said the industry should move on to more sustainable products.
The plastics industry overall has a strong case for sustainability. Polymers have a key role to play in making cars lighter and more fuel efficient, keeping food from spoiling, or saving energy by insulating homes better, to name a few examples.
That's the broader sustainability case the industry should focus on.