When millennials talked, plastics people listened. Intently.
And one thing was clear, not all plastics are created equal in the minds of the up-and-coming generation.
Polyethylene maker Nova Chemicals Corp. facilitated a dive into the minds and hearts of a panel of millennials, trying to gauge their views on plastics and how they fit into today's world.
A focus group brought together by Nova made one thing clear: The topic of plastics was not entirely clear with the panelists.
In their minds, there seemed to be plenty of questions about plastics and plastics recycling.
Gut instincts, bits of knowledge gleaned over the years and a reliance on common sense all helped formed opinions among focus group members.
Members of the panel, which gathered as part of the recent Plastics Caps & Closures 2019 conference in Chicago, all fell into the millennial generation.
That's the group of people, by definition, who are ages 22 to 37 and who come after Generation X, two generations after baby boomers.
There was an administrative assistant, a dentist, an educator, a person who works in logistics, a stay-at-home parent and a restaurant manager who took time to speak honestly and openly about different types of packaging.
Not surprisingly, there was a particular focus on plastics as a group of about 60 industry employees looked on from the audience.
This consumer panel, recruited from the Chicago area, gave an unvarnished view of their motivations and inclinations when it comes to plastics and recycling. And not surprisingly, more than one said they were inspired to recycle thanks to Captain Planet, the cartoon superhero from the 1990s that fought to preserve the environment.
While the group was educated and articulate, they certainly said they didn't have all the answers when it came to plastics and recycling.
A basic question that eluded the group was just what was recyclable and what was not recyclable. Considering the challenges that plastics recycling face in this country, that's not a surprise.
"I don't like that I don't know what can or cannot be recycled," said Brandi, the educator.
"I don't like the uncertainty of what is recyclable and what is not recyclable," echoed Erika, an administrative assistant.
The group was asked to sort through a variety of containers and a plastic bag, ranking them from most recyclable to least recyclable. There were different types of pouches and plastic bottles as well as a paperboard box, an aseptic carton, an aluminum can and a glass jar for their consideration.
At one point, one panel member said considering the different packaging components made the exercise confusing. Items such as sport caps and the foil layer on a drink pouch helped lead to that confusion. The chasing arrow symbol helped, one participant said.
Plastics packaging tended to do worse in the group's initial assessments.
But then a discussion facilitator introduced an analysis of what it takes to make each product. Opinions started to change. When factors such as energy, water and material use as well as transportation costs started to be explored, the panel began reconsidering. Plastics were seen in a more favorable light.
The idea of that exercise was to show how the introduction of some relatively straight-forward and simple information can influence the discussion and the opinions of people when it comes to plastics.
"Looks like glass is terrible," said Adam, the restaurant manager, to the amusement of the all-plastics audience.
"It's surprising the amount of fossil fuels and greenhouse emissions that metal and bottles [emit] and how they impact our world," said Brandi, the educator. "I would assume as much as we hear about plastic that plastic would be worse for our environment. But this perception kind of changes things."
After viewing the information presented, she supported cutting back on the use of aluminum and glass in favor of more flexible packaging.
Presentation of the inputs needed to create packaging, organizers said, was designed to show how public perception could be swayed. And that was a point of the exercise, organizers said.
There was no information provided about the life cycle impacts following consumer use, an area where plastics and pouches, in particular, have difficulty competing with other substrates such as metal and paper. Aluminum, for example, is widely recycled and takes much less energy to recover than to create originally.
The panel was designed to provide some insight into a handful of millennials as their influence in the world continues to grow.
Nova holds a workshop each year in conjunction with the conference that's organized by Plastics News, and it wanted to take a new approach this year by inviting outsiders to share their opinions.
"This year we wanted to do something different, take a bit more risk. As an industry, we are at a crossroads when it comes to public perception of our material," said Eric Vignola, market manager of caps and closures for Nova.
Millennials' influence on the plastics industry is only going to grow, said Spyro Petsalis, vice president, polyethylene at Osterman & Co., a distributor for Nova resins.
"Often at a conference, we talk to each other about what each other is doing and activities that are going on in the industry," said Jonathan Quinn, market development manager at Nova. "But we don't often talk to the consumer. ... At the end of the day, the consumer is why we are all here."