As I was driving to the second day of the Compounding World trade show, something caught my eye.
Off to the side of the highway as I drove toward downtown Cleveland, a black plastic bag was fluttering in the branches of a tree, stuck there for thousands of drivers to see as we made our way into town.
I couldn't have asked for a better symbol to explain the mood of the many materials firms that I spoke with at the two-day event, which was hosted by the AMI consulting firm and also focused on recycling and extrusion.
Materials firms are trying their best but are confronted with negative images — like a plastic bag stuck in a tree along a busy highway. Many firms are doing well this year from a sales and growth standpoint. They're trying to use more recycled content, although finding enough material can be a challenge.
One longtime materials executive told me that his firm is having difficulty meeting its sustainability goals. Another said his firm still was searching for sustainable applications to promote to its customers.
There also was a good deal of frustration at the amount of image-bashing that plastics have received worldwide, especially in the last 18 months. Executives who have spent decades working in the industry find it hard to believe that the many merits of plastics can be negated by a 2-minute online video on plastics pollution.
But that's the environment of 2019. Anti-plastics groups can find an audience almost immediately, while the plastics industry, for the most part, has had to play defense and has struggled to do so.
Many plastics firms have a hard time with the idea that emotion can be stronger than intellect, especially when images of animals such as turtles or birds trapped in plastic are used. When these examples are cited at conferences, there's always some chuckling and eye-rolling in the crowd.
Sadly, this is not a productive reaction because those images are very strong and connect with viewers. Can you imagine the impact of a video showing a puppy or a kitten trapped in a plastic bag or by plastic wire? That might cause the internet to explode and lead to dozens of plastics processing firms going out of business in a matter of months. The backlash would be immediate.
It's a challenge for plastics execs to find ways to simplify their pro-plastics comments into ways that resonate with consumers. Plastic straw bans are an example of this messaging problem. Mentioning straw bans also draws snickers from crowds at plastics events, but the bans caused many consumers to change their behavior and buying habits in a relatively short amount of time.
Possible solutions? The role of plastics in preserving food — and allowing greater numbers of people to be fed — has a strong emotional pull. Plastics being used in lifesaving medical applications also gets a positive reaction. These applications were mentioned by several execs at Compounding World and would serve as a strong focus for future defenses of plastics.
What happened to that black plastic bag I saw stuck in a tree in Cleveland? Did it end up in a landfill or was it recycled or reused? The answer to those questions will have a big impact on the future of the plastics market.
Esposito is a Plastics News senior reporter. Follow him on Twitter @fesposito22.