Different companies and people can legitimately have different views on what successful sustainability efforts look like, according to a senior director at one plastics industry trade group.
"It's a complex system of ever-evolving factors and focuses. And no one is doing it perfectly. And no one has it all figured out, and that's OK," said Patrick Krieger, senior director of sustainability and materials at the Plastics Industry Association. "To paraphrase that modern-day philosopher, Oprah Winfrey: 'Run your own race.'
"You can only do the things that work the best for you and your company. And if you are working on these things and you are trying to do things in a better way, overall, we will all collectively benefit from that," he said during the recent virtual sustainability workshop organized by the Washington-based trade association.
Plastics companies certainly can set and achieve sustainability goals.
But sustainability also is an ongoing process, he said.
"Sustainability isn't some city on the hill that if we all put our heads down and work hard we might someday get to. No. Sustainability is here. It isn't a place. It's a state like a dynamic equilibrium where we are all juggling a tray of trade-offs, trying to balance something that's constantly changing," Krieger said.
For those in the plastics business and those outside looking in, sustainability can look different — much, much different. Living and working in Washington, D.C., exposes the senior director to plenty of people who do not view plastics as sustainable.
"These aren't bad people. They are coming from a place of wanting to learn more and be more sustainable. But they don't understand what they are hearing and learning is misplaced, myopic and misleading," he said.
"So what we need to do is be better about understanding what sustainability is so we can talk to others about it and at the same time work to make our industry even more sustainable," Krieger said.
Krieger said he also hears anti-plastic sentiment at sustainability conferences he attends.
"That's a deeply frustrating experience spending the time and money to sit and hear that your industry is bad, your company is bad and that you are bad. Especially because we know that isn't true," he said.
"When viewed from an unbiased perspective, the data shows that if you want to use a sustainable material, oftentimes the best answer is a plastic one," he said.
Sustainability, Krieger added, also is about more than just materials management and pollution. Diversity, equity and inclusion have become much more prevalent in sustainability conversations. And DEI has grown beyond equitable hiring and management practices, he said, to also acknowledge there is a racial component to environmental justice. This then feeds into other topics like community engagement, health and safety, for example.
"There are so many definitions with different nuances," Krieger said about sustainability.
"When you think of sustainability as more than just the planet, more than just environmental conservation, it grows to encompass a very large number of concepts, often at the intersection or overlap of people, profit and planet," he said.
“While I hope that sustainability is something that you’re on the ride for, that’s really only part of the picture. Sustainability is something that your customers and your investors do care about and they are paying attention,” Krieger said.