Cleveland — Jon Ratzlaff delivered some good news and a major challenge during a keynote speech to kick off the Society of Plastics Engineers' Rotational Molding Conference in June.
The good news: U.S. oil and natural gas production is booming thanks to fracking. The challenge: plastic ocean waste.
"You might remember the old saying that when OPEC sneezes, the world catches a cold. Today when OPEC sneezes, the United States hands them a tissue," he said.
That's because the boom in fracking — hydraulic fracturing of shale reserves — has turned the United States and Canada into major energy hubs. And in North America, natural gas is used to make ethylene, which is the ingredient in polyethylene, by far the most popular material for rotational molding.
Ratzlaff is technical services manager for injection and rotomolding at Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. LP. He was also SPE president for the 2013-2014 year.
"This is a great time to be in plastics. For the U.S., for Canada, this is a tremendous time," he said.
Then Ratzlaff switched gears with a big "however…"
Plastics fouling the oceans and beaches is a major issue.
"I bet you that every one of you guys is feeling this pain right now because you're being bombarded by social media," he said.
Young people are growing up on social media.
"The people that are coming on board, the young people we need to hire, are very cognizant of this," Ratzlaff said.
That's why, he said, companies need to get involved with the problem. To start, he suggested looking at www.thisisplastics.com, set up by the Plastics Industry Association. He encouraged processors to become "educated ambassadors" by listening to stakeholders, using data and expressing what the plastics industry is doing to help solve the problem.
"You're hiring young people," Ratzlaff said. "You need to show them you're being responsible."
Ratzlaff said plastic trash is a people problem, as they irresponsibly throw away plastics and litter. It's also a third-world problem, as poorer, developing nations often lack good waste disposal, and the plastic waste goes into streams and river and ends up in the ocean.
But efforts to ban straws or plastic bags are not the answer, Ratzlaff said. "This concept of banning is not the option," he told the rotomolders.
One important industry action is the World Plastics Council, which has supported improved waste management solutions, including an initiative by Closed Loop Partners that focuses on improving waste collection and recycling in Southeast Asia. That initiative is part of the Ocean Conservancy and the Trash Free Seas Alliance, which several plastics companies and trade associations are actively supporting.
Chevron Phillips is a member of the World Plastics Council.
And Ratzlaff said a variety of independent efforts are going on around the world. India has developed asphalt that uses shredded waste plastic. "Every third-world country has plastic on their beaches, and every third-world country needs roads," he said.
A young Dutch inventor has raised millions of dollars to fund a floating device to help collect plastics in the oceans, starting a nonprofit called the Ocean Cleanup.
Ratzlaff said companies need to design for recycling and try to use post-consumer feedstocks.