Orlando, Fla. — Creating a circular economy for the plastics industry is going to take collaboration among companies that typically compete in the marketplace.
Companies, through trade groups, often join forces to tackle issues of widespread interest, such as regulation and industry standards.
And that's the type of cooperation that will be needed to push the concept of a circular economy in plastics, said Susan Graff, vice president of global corporate sustainability of Resource Recycling Systems, a consulting firm.
"I would submit that this is a pre-competitive issue," Graff told the audience at the recent Re|focus Sustainability & Recycling Summit in Orlando.
Companies, she said, need "to put together a solution before we end up with government regulation telling us what the solution is."
The concept of a circular economy in plastics has been gaining traction thanks, in part, to a report issued by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation addressing the issue.
"Applying circular economy principles to global plastic packaging flows could transform the plastics economy and drastically reduce negative externalities such as leakage into oceans," the foundation has stated.
A circular economy strives to reuse finite resources instead of the more-typical linear approach that ends up with used items in the landfill.
The circular economy, Graff said, focuses on breaking the "take, make, waste" cycle and "closing the loop."
Ocean plastics is one issue the plastics industry faces today as concern, and publicity is growing. And this matter is a prime example of how the industry can come together on a pre-competitive basis to find solutions.
"Cooperation is really the key. This is not something you can really do from inside your fence line or your property boundaries," Graff said.
"I think they have to realize they have risks. And I think ocean plastics is an in-your-face kind of risk," she said. "It's huge. It's visible. People are concerned about it, and so, I think it's a wake-up call to the industry."
"The plastics industry now has an opportunity to get ahead of this issue," Graff said.
People, she said, "are varied" on the view that work toward a circular economy can be accomplished on a pre-competitive basis.
"I do believe, though, a rising tide lifts all boats. And, especially, when you are dealing with infrastructure issues in the market where you operate, there's more than one company who is going to benefit as they try to make sure they have recycling in that area that helps them achieve their zero waste goals, helps them divert value from the landfill that could be captured, and end-markets and applications," Graff said.
She pointed to the Carton Council, a trade group through which different manufacturers worked together to expand recycling opportunities, as an example of pre-competitive cooperation.
The plastics industry also has worked together to help promote recycling efforts. Those, for example, include the Flexible Film Recycling Group organized through the American Chemistry Council.
Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets at ACC, said trade groups like his own provide a forum for companies to tackle issues on a pre-competitive basis.
The Re|focus gathering was organized by the Plastics Industry Association.