If you're a true plastics news junkie, like me, then you either set your DVR or you stayed up late on March 31 to watch the "Plastic Wars" program on PBS.
A handful of us on the Plastics News editorial team were geeked to watch the program, after seeing a handful of news releases from PBS and National Public Radio in the days leading up to the show.
We got even more wound up when we started to hear from industry contacts who were interviewed for the show. I could tell that the excitement wasn't universal. I brought the program up on a few Zoom meetings this week, and I tried to get my wife interested, too.
But except for my universe of colleagues and sources who have lived through the past 30 years of plastics recycling policy debates, the reaction was a yawn.
Well, I watched the program, and here's my reaction: It was OK. First, I know some in the industry were expecting a hatchet job, but that wasn't the case.
I thought the report was fair. Steve Russell, until recently the head of the American Chemistry Council's plastics division, and Jim Becker, vice president of sustainability at Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., both got adequate time to explain the industry's position, and I think they both did a solid job.
The focus of the report was more on two long-time-ago plastics industry executives, Lew Freeman, formerly of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., and Ron Liesemer, who was with the Council for Solid Waste Solutions in the early 1990s, when it was part of SPI.
Here's my first inside-baseball comment on that: It's telling that explaining the industry position 30+ years ago, they talked to SPI leaders, but explaining it today they talked to ACC. But Ron, being with CSWS, was certainly the equivalent of the modern-day ACC man. (And I don't have enough space in this column to explain why!)
I remember meeting the CSWS and SPI people in early 1991. They were the first industry people I met when I joined Plastics News. I also met SPI's long-time lawyer, Jerry Heckman, that day, and I can't help but wonder what Jerry would have to say about all this … not just the Frontline program, but everything going on in the industry.
If the plastics industry is going to have any reaction to the Frontline program, it needs to address that disaster that we saw in Indonesia. That was awful, to see how a company was "recycling" plastic waste from the United States, but it was actually dumping it in the environment. That has to stop.
Overall, I think the program was OK. Look at it this way: It's like the producers tried to take everything Plastics News has been writing about plastics recycling for the past 31 years and condense it into an hour-long program … and at the same time, include enough context for viewers who knew nothing about the debate.
I'm not sure that the average PBS viewer will care much about any of it. I think it will reinforce things that the public already thinks about plastic. I think it's useful for people to realize that, as industry pushes technology like advanced sorting and chemical recycling to solve solid waste issues in 2020, we should remember that it's exactly the same playbook they used in the 1990s, the last time they faced a crisis.
No one should be surprised when an industry trade group is exposed for advocating on behalf of the industry. That's not a scandal.
I will say this too: The big debate about the SPI recycling code, and the chasing arrows vs. triangle symbol, brought back some memories. Not to mention the crying Indian and the "Plastics make it possible" ads.
I also enjoyed how the program compared the modern advanced sorting machine with the equipment from decades ago. That could have been a Daily Show feature. "So you sold it for scrap?" Goodness.
A final point: There's absolutely nothing wrong with blaming consumers for litter. I'm convinced that's a cultural problem that can be fixed. But you can't blame people for wanting to recycle plastics that aren't really recyclable, because communication on what recyclers actually want has been poor for decades.
Consumers get conflicting information, and they're doing their best.
If you think education should be part of the solution to the plastics recycling problem, start with telling people clearly what they can, and can't, recycle. Then recycle the low-hanging fruit, because we aren't even doing a very good job of that. That will solve a lot of problems.