Las Vegas — Many consumers are conflicted by plastics. They realize the benefits but also worry about the environmental impact of the material.
That's today's reality, says Jennifer Ronk of Dow Chemical Co. at the Packaging Conference recently in Las Vegas.
"People get this visceral, emotional reaction to plastic when they see plastic in the environment, and they want to do something," said Ronk, who is sustainability and advocacy manager for Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics in North America.
"When we talk to people they get the benefit of plastics. They understand it. They see it in health care. They see it in safety. They really don't love the 'convenient' message, even though that's something that they buy a whole lot of, but they get it. But that doesn't mean they aren't perfectly OK talking about banning products and product swapping because they still have this visceral reaction to these images that they see," Ronk said.
"So they know plastics are a good idea, they know intellectually, understand the benefits. And they don't care. They want to use something else," she said.
"We have an opportunity, understanding that, to show leadership so that we can keep the sustainability benefits of the products that we make in a way that will change the conversation. And in order to do that, first of all, we have to take ownership of hope. We can't just show pictures of horrible beaches and say, 'Oh my gosh, it's all terrible.'
"We have to be willing to say, 'Yep, this is a problem and we need to fix it.' And we have to emphasize how we can each be part of the solution. We can lead with initiatives instead of benefits so people understand that we see the problem and we understand what they're concerned about. And we are going to work together to get this matter solved," Ronk said.
Litter in the environment, including plastics, is a problem, she said. And the industry should not be afraid to acknowledge that point and seek change.
America's overall awakening about general waste management over the past 50 years can help serve as a blueprint for how the plastics waste problem can be handled.
"I'm not that old, but in my lifetime, taking trash and throwing it into a swamp here in North America was an acceptable thing to do," she said. "We can't be super judgey about it. But what we can do is look at what we've learned about waste management systems."
"I think we should not be afraid of saying materials in the environment are bad and we need to take care of that," Ronk said.
She told those in the crowd they would be surprised by how many conversations she's had with people questioning if that type of transparency is a good idea.