What's in the future for plastics? I don't mean for next quarter or even the rest of the year. You can ask an economist and get an intelligent guess about the short-term outlook for any market, material or process.
I'm talking about forward-looking trends, the topics that futurists write books about.
Your crystal ball may look cloudy these days. Bans, taxes and producer responsibility are regular topics in the media. Brand owners are promising to use a lot more recycled plastic, but headlines are screaming that plastics recycling is broken. That implies they can't possibly meet those commitments, right? If so, will we see more bans in the future?
On the other hand, North America is in the middle of a golden age of plastics. The region is adding roughly 20 billion pounds of polyethylene capacity between 2016-22. A huge share of that will be exported to developing markets that currently use a lot less plastic, per capita, than places like North America and Europe.
I wanted to take the industry's pulse, so I posted a question recently on PlasticsNews.com: Twenty years from now, how much single-use plastic will be produced globally? I gave three choices: More than today, about the same as today or less than today.
Admittedly, this is an unscientific poll. But I was surprised to see that, by far, the leading answer is less.
I think the key is the time frame. If I had asked about five years in the future, the smart money would be on more single-use plastic. Probably a lot more.
But readers are looking longer term, and they don't believe this growth is sustainable. Some combination of legislation and changing consumer attitudes will mean a reduction in plastics consumption.
In the United States, plastic battles are playing out on the state and local level. You've seen our coverage of legislation in places like California, New York and New Jersey to ban more plastic. Meanwhile, other states like South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee are arguing about preemption laws, which prevent municipalities from enacting local bans. If you're not paying close attention, then the issue may be confusing.
Internationally, in debates at the G7, the European Union and the United Nations, the issue is clear: Leaders are looking for ways to reduce single-use plastics. To date, most of their efforts focus on banning or taxing specific plastic products.
But don't be surprised to see more proposals like the recent one from billionaire Australian businessman Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest, who floated the idea of a tax on virgin resin.
Forrest told Plastics News such a tax would encourage recycling.
"We need an effective, systemwide solution for a devastating systemwide problem," Forrest said. "We need to make plastic waste no longer a poison of oceans but a resource opportunity for billions of people. It must be viewed as a commodity rather than waste after first use. To enable this, we need to create an environment that allows for economic recycling of plastics. We can do that through a global premium on virgin polymer."
Forrest complained that, to date, the plastics industry has supported "little, fragmented solutions, which won't come close to denting the tide of plastic killing our oceans."
I agree that most of the world has become too comfortable with throwing away used plastics. There's also a waste infrastructure problem, especially in Asia. We're in the early stages of seeing that addressed. But that won't solve the problem because there are litter and marine debris problems everywhere, not just Asia.
The plastics industry still needs to stand against bans and taxes that encourage replacing plastic products with less sustainable materials. But it also has a responsibility to steer the debate to ideas that actually will work, to make commitments that are both ambitious and achievable, and to go far beyond "little, fragmented solutions."
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.