Are you looking over your shoulder yet?
Until recently, just a few plastic products have been under serious pressure from environmentalists and legislators. Plastic bags, coffee cups and polystyrene takeout packaging have been the biggest targets.
Suddenly more products are under fire. Plastic straws, closures and water bottles are high on the list. One grocery chain in the United Kingdom that specializes in frozen food has even made a commitment to eliminate plastics packaging from its own brands by the end of 2023.
A grocery chain without plastics packaging? What's going on?
Public concern about single-use plastics packaging has been simmering for decades. But lately there's been more interest from the news media, nongovernmental organizations and legislators. There's a growing awareness of marine debris, which has become synonymous with plastics: floating bags, microplastics and microbeads.
When people think of plastics packaging, they're not thinking about convenience and food safety. They're thinking about sea turtles, birds and mammals eating or getting entangled in plastic trash.
Activists have had some success in banning single-use plastic bags in California, Hawaii and some scattered cities. But they're aware that despite the legislative victories, plastics consumption is growing, the marine debris problem is getting worse, and there are millions of pounds of new resin production coming on stream in North America, thanks to low-priced natural gas from fracking.
On top of all that, China is restricting imports of plastic waste. There's a fear that plastics that have been recycled now will end up in landfills, or worse, in the environment. In response, some people are pushing for more product bans.
Is this all misguided?
That's a common reaction from the plastics industry. Plastics save energy and material, so banning plastics and replacing them with other materials could end up creating more waste and using more energy. Plastics packaging also prevents food waste and keeps consumers safe from diseases caused by contamination and spoilage.
Also, some industry leaders wonder why plastics are demonized when the marine debris problem is the result of littering and poor waste disposal practices. Don't blame the material, they say; blame consumers.
That's all true, and the argument will help stem the tide against some product bans. But not all of them. Remember, critics aren't suggesting replacing plastics with single-use paper, metal or glass alternatives. They're pushing for completely changing consumer behavior. No more throw-away culture.
How serious is the threat to plastics?
Despite some of the rhetoric, plastics aren't going to disappear. In many applications, they are the best choice. Brand owners will fight to continue to use plastics … to a point.
But there will be pressure. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May supports a tax on bottles and coffee cups. The European Union is pushing a regional plan to make all packaging either reusable or recyclable by 2030. Consumer product companies including Coca-Cola Co. and Unilever are on board. Plastics packaging is going to change, especially products like multilayer pouches that have rarely been recycled.
I've watched the industry react to these types of challenges before. This time, just announcing a recycling goal isn't going to be enough. Plastics processors will need to adjust to changing laws and shifting consumer preferences.
Plastics recyclers can help, but they'll need a commitment from brand owners and processors that this is a serious goal. In the past, I've seen some brand owners invest a bit of money in pilot projects to prove a product can be recycled, then walk away after collecting just a few thousand pounds. That's not going to be enough. This time, the industry needs to get serious.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of "The Plastics Blog." Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.