I have worked in the plastics industry for 60 years, and in that time I have worked as a plant operator and ended up owning a large plastic operation; having passed through all of the operational and marketing functions.
I have seen tremendous changes, mostly good, but now I am dismayed at the image plastics have in our society. It has become a pariah industry, but one that has penetrated every aspect of modern life, replacing more expensive, heavy and breakable older materials.
Our modern world could not exist without the plastics I helped develop, produce and sell. Yet we are now at the stage where Plastics News can run an article quoting a group called "Beyond Plastics." Indeed, the attitude of the industry, and Plastics News as one of its spokesmen, is decidedly defensive. This is unfair to the industry and those of us who have worked in it.
In the 1967 movie The Graduate there was the famous line recommending a career move to Benjamin with the single word "plastics." It is highly unlikely that an inebriated guest at a graduation party in California in 2022 would utter that word. He would more likely say, "marijuana"; it is more socially acceptable.
I would also have advised Benjamin to trade the Alfa in for a '67 GTO convertible and keep it ... but that's hindsight.
So dealing in a bit of hindsight myself, I ask, how did we get here? I submit that the environmental activist world has as its target not just the plastics world, but also the larger chemical and oil and gas industries.
Ban PVC and what do we do with the chlorine produced in the world by the production of 70 million tons per year of sodium hydroxide? No sodium hydroxide and the drug, basic chemical and paper industries are in trouble. Resource management and supplies are limited so we have to recycle or we will run out.
In Pennsylvania alone we have enough natural gas for 400 years of consumption. Is it better for society to burn this and oil products or to turn it into useful plastics like I have in my hip joint or in the siding on my 40-year-old house?
You want carbon capture? How about burying the plastics in properly designed landfills, lined with PVC and polyethylene that keep it safe forever. We have enough permitted landfill sites for 100 years. I'll wager that in 60 more years, more people will have been harmed by marijuana than by all the landfills we create in that time.
I have participated in the production and sale of hundreds of millions of pounds of plastics; thermoplastic and thermosets. I made millions of pounds of coatings and chemically these are all plastics too. To my knowledge, none of these were recycled from the end user. It was impossible to do so, both economically and technically. But we recycled huge quantities from industrial sources because it worked. 50 percent of all the cooling tower fill we made was recycled PVC blister trim, and still is. Plastic decking is recycled PE and sawdust, I'm told, and that works too. PET is recycled efficiently, as are some high density PE and polypropylene products.
But getting clean ground and delivered recycled thermoplastics in larger quantities above single-digit percentages will not happen and is unnecessary. Sustainability as defined by the environmental activists will never happen. It's like hopes for world peace in graduation speeches.
The future needs plastics for all the good things that will be developed, as we have enjoyed in the last 60 years. No solar panels without plastics. No EVs without plastics. No efficient buildings without plastics. No cheap and protected foods and drugs without plastics. We need to get this word out to the general public and educate them.