Chicago — Plastics are in a state of emergency, Penny Walter says.
As senior category manager for strategic procurement sourcing — closures in North America for Coca-Cola Co., Walter sees the situation facing the industry up close and personal.
"We are under attack as the plastics industry for single-use bottles, for beverage containers. There's a financial impact to the things I'm talking about," she said.
"The industry has reached a tipping point. There's a negative perception that is real of the plastics industry. Consumers are avoiding buying our products. Why is plastics considered evil? " she asked at the recent Plastics Caps & Closures 2019 conference in Chicago.
With an estimated 8 million tons of plastic waste entering ocean waters each year and all the talk about plastics polluting the environment, plastics waste management is a raging issue.
"We as an industry are at the point where we need to have a call to action. Regardless of what company you work for. We as an industry need to come together and have one voice. One voice for the plastics industry to educate consumers to properly recycle and the benefits of plastics," Walter said.
"Plastic isn't evil. In fact, it's the way forward for our future. How do we shift that paradigm?" she said.
Plastics, Walter said, has touched "each and every one of our lives." She pointed to the medical and pharmaceutical industries as just two segments where plastics have made an impact.
But those are far from the only areas.
"Everything we do, directly or indirectly," she said, has a connection to plastics.
Walter told the crowd to pay attention to and engage those who speak against plastics.
"Come together. There's a lot of critics out there. Let's listen to what they have to say and ask them to help come up with a solution. Let's leverage that as an opportunity," she said.
China's decision to stop importing most recycled plastics and other used commodities certainly has helped focus attention on post-consumer material management in the United States.
"Is this a challenge or is this an opportunity?" she asked.
There is a trend toward buying more finished goods with a growing percentage of recycled resin, but that's not enough, she told the crowd.
"How do we create a world without waste?" she asked. "How do we change this perception? I ask each of you to think about how each of you can partner in this solution."
Walter choose her words carefully as Coca-Cola, early last year, unveiled its World Without Waste initiative. That program includes a goal of collecting and recycling the equivalent of every bottle and can the company sells around the world by 2030.
The Atlanta-based beverage company also wants to significantly increase the amount of recycled content in the plastic packaging.
"Our mission at Coca-Cola, we want to be leaders in sustainability, and we want you to be with us," Walter said. "We want 50 percent recycled content. It's a big gap. Where's that material going to come from? We've got to close that gap. There's a lot of smart people in this room. How do we go forward?"
Coca-Cola is working on increasing post-consumer content, Walter said, but she is not able to publicly talk about those efforts yet.
"We've got some real things that are happening with this," she said. "We've got some really cool things coming. We want to be the first, and I want you to come with me."
Safety and product quality always must be kept at the forefront, Walter said, but "we need to start challenging the way we're doing business."
"If you want to do business with Coca-Cola, I highly suggest you take this seriously. Sustainability is going to be the way to our future. It's a sober message, but this is how serious this is," she said. "It's the right thing to do for society. For our overall plastics industry, we've got to make a change," she said.
"We can change the perception of plastic. It's going to take time. Each of us needs to come together," she said at the conference organized by Plastics News.