Mexico City — Plastics have come to find itself in a global fistfight regarding the future of the industry as a growing chorus of critics question the material's place in society.
A top advocate for plastics in the United States, Matt Seaholm, CEO of the Plastics Industry Association trade group, made one thing clear during a presentation at the recent Plastimagen show in Mexico City.
Plastics and plastics recycling need a multipronged approach to counteract those who wish the industry would simply go away. That includes working with those in other industries where plastics make an impact, Seaholm said. And without becoming more sustainable, the industry will continue to face more threats, he added.
"Circularity for the plastics industry as we see it is essential to the sustainability of the entire industry. There are many challenges facing our industry, and the environmental impact of plastic waste as well as much of the marine-bound, ocean-bound plastic is putting in jeopardy the future of the plastics industry from future regulations," Seaholm said during a roundtable discussion.
"The way we see it is not just the right thing to do for the environment, but it's the right thing to do for our industry as well," he said.
Plastics is an industry in and of itself, but it also intersects with a wide variety of other manufacturing processes, Seaholm said. And those in plastics have to make it clear that there could be a ripple effect in other industries if plastic restrictions are imposed.
"One thing we have certainly learned over the past few years with the pandemic, as well as geopolitical tensions around the world, [is] that stable supply chains are absolutely essential to all of the industries that use plastics," Seaholm said.
"It's important for us to work with those other industries so they understand that if plastic is restricted, it is outright banned, it is pushed out of the economy, it will have ripple effects across many other industries. That's our responsibility to make sure those other industries understand that these policies, these proposals could have a significant impact for them as well as our industry," Seaholm said.
He said there is "a systematic attack on plastics" that has moved to attacks on plastics recycling.
"There are efforts to take away some of the best sustainability arguments that plastics have," Seaholm said. "They also are saying that recycling is neither feasible nor economic. This is an ongoing and, as I said, systematic effort to take down the plastics industry across the world."
Plastics, as in industry, must commit to designing products with recyclability in mind, he said: "We have to make it as easy as possible for our consumers to be able to recycle, and that starts with the design of the bottle."
Plastics have enjoyed great success in recent decades as a replacement material for other substrates. But with that success ultimately comes a reputational cost.
Plastics critics easily find fuel for their views by pointing to the recycling rate of plastics, where the success stories within specific resins do not even reach 30 percent and the overall rate has been estimated to be less than 10 percent.
"The industry was seeing a boom in production, and much of it came from incredible innovation. We knew the value of plastics," Seaholm said. "We also knew the sustainability of plastics. What we didn't know is our ability to produce it was far outpacing our ability to recycle it," he said. "Now we are looking to play catch-up to be able to recycle all of those products we've developed over the last 20 years."
The industry has to keep "investing and innovating," he said.
"I keep coming back to design for recyclability. It is essential for our industry to remain committed to it. Where we can, we should. Also continued investment in recycling capabilities, especially in advanced recycling, or chemical recycling. The scale that it provides us and the ability to recycle hard-to-recycle items really are a commitment that our industry has to maintain and continue to develop," Seaholm said.
"We have to seek partners for circularity. That could be brands who need use recycled content and buy it from the plastics industry. That could be waste management companies who we need to work with to collect more plastic and ultimately recycle it. And then there are also partners within government. We need policymakers to be committed to a more circular economy if we are going to achieve it," he said.
One thing we have certainly learned over the past few years with the pandemic, as well as geopolitical tensions around the world, [is] that stable supply chains are absolutely essential to all of the industries that use plastics."