No one these days needs to be told that public opinion can be a massive weapon. Especially not the plastics industry.
But if this industry ever needed a wake-up call, last year's free-for-all plastic bashing frenzy certainly provided one. As an industry, we pride ourselves on the fact that our products bring convenience and benefits to society. We talk about how plastic can help to boost efficiency and enhance sustainability. But these are messages that have singularly failed to penetrate the public consciousness. In the eyes of the people, plastic is an evil, not a solution.
As an industry, it's time to step up to the plate. The initial signs are good: The new Alliance to End Plastic Waste, whose members include some of the biggest raw materials producers in the business, looks ready to walk like it talks, with a pledge to invest $1.5 billion over the next five years to tackle the problem.
Other developments are also afoot. With climate change and resource depletion also at the front of people's minds, biomass-based, renewably sourced polymers are starting to look increasingly appealing. Long shrugged off as second-rate niche materials, riddled with quality and supply issues, growing numbers of raw materials producers, designers, compounders and converters are rethinking that attitude.
Confronted with rising demand from consumers for greener materials and with increasingly stringent environmental legislation, in combination with the development of drop-ins — bio-based equivalents to fossil-based conventional plastics — and novel polymers whose properties are still being explored, the plastics value chain cannot afford to remain aloof.
Pioneering companies like Italy's Novamont SpA or Brazil's Braskem SA, which developed the sugarcane-based bio-PE known as 'I'm Green,' and U.S.-based NatureWorks LLC, which almost singlehandedly has opened up a market for PLA biopolymers, are now being joined by new players in the bio-based plastics space. Many major chemical and raw material manufacturers have also invested in bioplastics development.
High time, therefore, to pay more attention to what's going on.
Karen Laird is editor of Plastics News Europe, a sister magazine of Plastics News. Follow her on Twitter @karelynnlaird and @Plasticsnewseu.