Naples, Fla. — The American public won't listen to much of anything the plastics industry has to say about its contributions to society until they feel companies are cleaning up plastics in the ocean and fixing recycling.
At least that's what the head of a leading sustainability marketing and strategy company recently told an audience of plastics industry executives.
Suzanne Shelton, CEO of the Shelton Group Inc. in Nashville, Tenn., said the extensive polling her firm does indicates that plastics are the public's top environmental worry and that the concerns are growing.
"We are more concerned about plastics in the environment than any other environmental issue we test," Shelton said in a presentation at the Plastics News Executive Forum, held March 21-23 in Naples. "This is a very real issue and people are freaked out about it."
The coronavirus pandemic briefly reduced concerns, but it's climbed back and remains the public's chief environmental and sustainability worry, even if climate change may have a much bigger impact on the world, she said.
"We were more concerned about plastics in the ocean before COVID, during COVID and after COVID," she said. "It is the issue that we are the most worried about, even more than climate change, and arguably climate change is the bigger issue."
Shelton's 30-employee firm builds sustainability marketing campaigns for large companies like Eastman Chemical, CertainTeed, Georgia Pacific and Mattel.
Its polling shows 90 percent of the public last year felt the amount of plastic trash in oceans and waterways was at an all-time high, up from 77 percent in 2020.
Her firm's data also pointed to increasing skepticism that recycling is a good solution, which she called a troubling sign for the industry because plastics companies have staked a lot around boosting recycling as a key to how they want to solve the problem.
"The promise of the blue bin is starting to crack," she said. "Thirty percent of us today are not all confident that what we toss in the recycling bin is actually recycled. That's a problem because just a few years ago [in 2019], that number was 14 percent.
"We've doubled the skepticism in the last three years," she said. "That's not good."