As that famous American philosopher Yogi Berra once said, it's like deja vu all over again.
Once again the plastics industry is in the environmental spotlight, and again, not in a good way, with the primary culprit being discarded single-use plastics packaging polluting our oceans and landscape.
In 1987 the infamous Long Island garbage barge was traveling from port to port looking for a friendly locale to unload its cargo of 3,200 tons of waste, much of it plastic.
Naturally this activity generated a lot of press, and the cry was raised that we were running out of landfill capacity. What was needed was to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills.
What became the bad boy in all of this was plastic. The poster child for this problem was single-use EPS clamshell containers utilized by the fast food industry.
The plastics industry jumped in to protect itself by presenting loads of data showing that plastics packaging was the best packaging. However, once a public issue gets to this point, these facts matter little.
From the interactions that I had with a major packaging manufacturer, they thought that the benefits of the clamshell container would carry the day with their customers. Boy, were they wrong.
As the landfill crises festered, loud voices were raised vilifying plastic's role in this situation. Guess what? It wasn't long before the clamshell was discontinued and replaced by an inferior product.
One of the positive aspects of this situation was that it gave plastic recycling a big boost.
Now 30-plus years later, we have a worldwide plastic pollution problem centered on litter. The culprit again is single-use packaging. Even though we went through this problem before, it seems that we are repeating the same mistakes in how we are addressing this issue. First, by overly focusing on technological arguments favoring plastic packaging. Second, by trying to deflect blame by positioning this issue as a human education problem. In my view, since the material we are talking about is plastic, it is our problem.
We need to make the problem go away — and quickly. Otherwise many of our packaging products, that are indeed the better option, will end up like the clamshell ... obsolete.
Will this happen? Consider the evidence. Here in the U.S., municipalities are passing legislation banning these products. Curbside recycling as an outlet is floundering. The European Union is well on its way to legislate out single-use plastic packaging. Canada too. In Kenya, a law bans single-use plastic bags with jail time and fines.
What can we do to shift this paradigm? The reason mankind is getting smothered with plastic litter is that these spent plastic products don't have any value.
We all know that economic incentives work. Look at the success of bottle bills. When Oregon raised the deposit from 5 to 10 cents, the return rate jumped to 73 percent. Increase the deposit to 25 cents and see what happens.
Now place a similar deposit on all other plastic packaging. The end result just might be that it will be difficult to find plastic litter.
Returning these items back to the supermarkets is unworkable. Instead, I propose dedicated redemption centers operated under the auspices of the packaging and resin companies. After all, following the cradle-to-grave model, this is their product and responsibility.
As the logistic and quality concerns are mitigated by standards for redemption, the payment for the material comes from deposits. Packaging companies have made commitments to increase recycled content, so this business model has all the attributes of being a profitable enterprise.
Is this plastic pollution solution overly simplistic and needs refinement? Of course it does.
Since plastic pollution has been a chronic problem, isn't it time to attack this problem with all the vigor that our industry can command, and put an end to this scourge once and for all?