Atlanta — Attributes that make plastics so useful also can cause problems in the eyes of many.
And that creates conflict.
But David Clark, vice president of sustainability for Amcor Ltd., sees a pathway where plastics can prosper and the environment does not have to lose.
"The answer is not getting rid of plastics. The answer is let's manage them properly, get them out of the environment," Clark said at the recent PETnology Americas 2018 conference in Atlanta.
"The industry has been riding on the externalities of not having to deal with waste. I think what we need to do is solve it and [have that solution] be acceptable to us," he said. "When it gets into the environment, it's a disaster and the disasters are real. They are not made up by environmentalists."
Amcor, the global packaging company, makes most of its money from the sale of both rigid and flexible plastic packaging. So the Melbourne, Australia-based company sees high stakes in the years ahead as debate continues on the merits of plastic.
"There are a couple of things, I think, that we can do to start changing the conversation here. Our products, in many cases, are being referred to as single-use plastics," he told the conference crowd. "It's not single use. Consumers just don't use our packaging for 15 minutes and then they throw it away.
"It's been working for months up until that point to make sure they got what they wanted, at the time they wanted, and it's safe and fresh. We have to help people start understanding that," he said. "This is not a drinking straw or a coffee cup lid. This is a package that's protecting food or protecting medicine or protecting something else."
Clark said the problem of plastics leaking into the environment has a far-reaching impact.
"I can tell you that none of the customers buy our products, and none of our customers buy any packaging from anyone, because they like creating branded waste. They buy our packaging because it's the best thing they can find," he said.
Adding complexity to the issue is the differing levels of recycling that take place — or not — around the world.
While plastic ocean pollution is gaining plenty of publicity in developed countries, the bulk of the material going into the environment actually comes from emerging economies that do not have the infrastructure to deal with their own waste and recycling issues.
"We're not going to solve the ocean problem by banning straws and banning plastic bags. We're not also going to solve this problem by badgering people in the United States or in Europe who use plastic. We need to go to the source and fix the problem there. But we need to do it as an industry because in the United States or in Europe, we're going to end up paying the price for what's happening in other parts of the world," Clark said.
The packaging industry, during the past two decades, has created new products that reduce cost, improve convenience and provide better protection.
But those products sometimes cause more complex problems when it comes to recycling. That includes multilayer flexible packaging that involves different resins and even aluminum to provide protection.
"These are just monstrous if not impossible to recycle. That's why we don't have recycling for flexible packaging in most places in the world," he said.
Amcor wants to have all company packaging to either be recyclable or reusable by 2025. For the PET container business, that's pretty straight forward, Clark said. For the flexibles business, there's more difficulty.
The company also wants to significantly increase the amount of recycled materials used to make new packaging products, but did not put a number on that goal.
A third goal is to drive consistently greater collection of used packaging around the world, he said.
Extended producer responsibility, or EPR, is a four-letter word in the view of many manufacturers. That's because the concept places the burden of end-of-life collection and disposal or recycling on their shoulders.
But Clark said society must figure out ways — potentially including EPR, bottle bills and taxes — to help pay for recycling.
"Somebody is going to end up paying if we are going to solve this problem," he said. "Recycling doesn't pay for itself if you look at only the value of the material that you collect and the cost to collect and what you sell it for.
"But what's left out of that equation is the impact you are having on the environment if you are letting all of this stuff go out there," he said.
Simply put, plastics do not belong in the environment, Clark said.
"The message is, we get to choose our future. It's not going to be simple. But everything I've talked about here exists some place in the world already. We don't have to invent new technologies. We are not curing cancer, and we can solve this problem," he said.