Milwaukee — Plastics companies are great innovators, but in a world faced with plastics in the oceans, the industry needs to "innovate out" and work with diverse voices, such as environmentalists, government officials, academia, social scientists and non-governmental organizations, Brian Landes said at the SPE Thermoforming Conference.
"We need more people in this conversation," Landes, president of the Society of Plastics Engineers, said during the conference in Milwaukee.
Landes showed slides of his Google search of the words "plastic" and "plastics" and it was nothing but negative headlines.
"We do a lot of good things, right? The benefits of our industry, our technology, our people are real. But the perception of our industry is a little different than what you see listed," he told thermoformers.
"Even though these [positive] things are real, for the globe right now they're not front and center. And as an industry as a society, we people, we have to address those things," Landes said.
People are seeing plastics as a threat. Many see the answer as banning plastics. Yes, he said, plastics in the environment is actually a solid waste issue, but that's not what society is thinking now, and the industry has to acknowledge this and seek outside perspectives, he said.
Landes said 66 percent of consumers think plastics is beneficial to their daily lives, but three quarters of those people also are worried about the environmental impact of plastics.
"These people are already in your court. They already see the benefits of what we do as an industry. But they're still pretty concerned about this whole plastics waste issue. That should set off an alarm. right? That tells you this is something we need to address, not just verbally, but we need to listen and we need to act. We need to activate," Landes said.
The SPE president said companies can get involved in local cleanups.
"This is one example of working outside of those internal boundaries," he said. Dow Inc., where Landes is technology leader, started organized cleanups where people tried to pick up 4.8 pounds of plastics a day — the average amount of waste generated per person each day. Dow has created a packet to help companies organize a community cleanup.
He encouraged plastics companies to share the volunteer work on social media.
"This is very important, because the world needs to see that we're doing something to address the concerns that they have today," he said.
Landes encouraged companies to get involved in the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, the industry-sponsored non-profit effort that has pledged $1.5 billion to help solve the problem.
And he said plastics is the right industry to fix it. SPE is in a good position to help, he added.
"Who better to serve really as a connector, which is what we say we want to do, and it's what we do well? Who better to handle the challenge of innovation than the plastics industry? It's what we have a history of doing. What we need though, is we need a diversity of perspectives on this. We need the perspectives of people who maybe aren't in our industry, who aren't scientists, but have other perspectives on things," Landes said.
Landes, himself a polymer scientist, said he used to be a skeptic when hearing calls to talk to, say social scientists.
"I'll be the first to admit that when I thought of these things years I ago, I said 'C'mon, this is just gonna slooooooow things down,'" he said. "But there's some real examples that I have become aware of, that have really changed my mind about this. And I realized now that, no I don't know it all. And technology isn't the answer for everything. It's a collaborative soup, if you will, of ideas and thoughts that can get this job done."