Perhaps the biggest news for the long-term future of the plastics industry that came out during NPE week didn't even happen in Orlando, Fla.
It was the American Chemistry Council's announcement of a goal to reuse, recycle or recover all plastics packaging by 2040.
Maybe 22 years sounds like a long time, but it's not. Many Plastics News readers have been in the industry that long — or longer. If you can remember working in plastics in 1996, then just imagine if the industry had made this goal back then and achieved it. How different would the plastics industry be today? How much less pressure would there to ban plastics products?
It's an intriguing question. Conversely, consider where the industry will be in 2040 if it keeps chugging along with the status quo: suppliers announcing more capacity to take advantage of low-cost feedstocks but growing concern from consumers about litter, marine debris and low recycling rates.
That's not a sustainable path.
So, the members of the ACC Plastics division should be applauded for setting an ambitious goal to end plastics packaging waste. Making the announcement, Vice President Steve Russell acknowledged that the goals will not be easy to achieve.
As Plastics News' Jim Johnson pointed out in his story about the goals, even steel and aluminum, which have many advantages over plastics when it comes to recycling, have recycling rates that are nowhere near 100 percent.
Progress will require big improvements in infrastructure, recycling technology, materials science, product design and consumer attitudes. It will require cooperation from all sectors of the plastics industry and, perhaps most important of all, consumer product companies that specify plastics packaging. For most, their No. 1 priority has never been sustainability or recyclability; it's been selling product. The makers of Coca-Cola and Tide aren't selling plastic bottles; they're selling soft drinks and laundry detergent.
But they want to keep selling soft drinks and laundry detergent in plastics packaging, so they need to realize that it's in their interest to get on board with ACC's goal.
The plastics industry has had problems in the past when some set ambitious "rates and dates" goals when faced with public pressure, then quietly stepped away from the commitment when it became financially too difficult. The fact that ACC's Plastics division, which represents nearly all of the region's resin manufacturers, is behind this goal is a good sign because it will take a unified effort to achieve.
I wonder how the plastics industry will reach the goal. I hope I'm there in 2040 — or before — when they announce the victory. And I know Plastics News, and the world, will be watching for signs of progress.
Don Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.