Grand Rapids, Mich. — Plastics pollution is not a new problem. But with an emerging middle class around the world, it's a growing problem.
Plastics recyclers have been dealing with the issue for decades, said Rick Wagner, global sustainability manager at Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. LP.
"What's really happened is the wheels have come off the track. There's been so much growth and excitement in our products," he said. "Plastics and recycled plastics have been so successful in the market and how efficiently they bring solutions to daily life around the world. That's actually outreached the growth of the infrastructure" to deal with the material after initial use, he said.
Plastics pollution is now a global issue, and it's put an uncomfortable spotlight on the plastics industry.
More than two dozen major companies created the Alliance to End Plastic Waste earlier this year and pledged $1.5 billion to find solutions. There are now 31 companies involved in the program, Wagner said, including CP Chem. He expects more to join in the future.
The alliance has established some programs to address plastics pollution, he said, including efforts to gather and share information on a global basis. The group also sees a need to partner with cities where no waste management infrastructure exists.
An incubator network is under development to nurture entrepreneurial ideas aimed at finding solutions, and there is an initial cleanup effort along India's Ganges River. There have been 360 proposed projects submitted for consideration and funding, Wagner said.
Plastics have a clear value during their initial use, Wagner said. But there has to be more.
As people improve their economic stature, they can afford to use more products that are packaged and protected in plastics. While this improves convenience and safety, it also creates more plastic waste.
"We need to find that value and continue that value beyond that first use, and that's the challenge. That's the challenge. Because once you find value, it will be used," he said at the recent Re|focus Sustainability & Recycling Summit in Grand Rapids.