Jim Fitterling and Tom Salmon originally were going to take the stage at Antec 2020 in San Antonio and talk about sustainability. An invisible virus got in the way.
But at the first-ever virtual Antec, Fitterling, the CEO of Dow Inc., and Berry Global Group Inc.'s CEO, Tom Salmon, did address sustainability and how plastics fits in a circular economy — after talking about coronavirus issues. They were keynote speakers March 30.
"I want to encourage everybody to continue to move forward on our commitments to sustainability. It won't be easy." Fitterling said. "During COVID-19 — and I've heard this, on news reports and on different shows that have been on the television — people are saying well you know this COVID crisis is going to cause all these sustainability activities to move to one side."
The crisis is going to end. "But the air we breathe, our water and the land we live on is here forever. And we can't afford to lose the momentum that we've started to gain already to safeguard the environment and help us move to a more circular economy," Fitterling said.
Salmon, whose company is a major packaging manufacturer, said the coronavirus highlights the important role of plastics to both consumers and customers.
"I think it's a great opportunity for us to tastefully re-educate the world around the power of plastics, and not dealing in an opportunistic way, but as a way that's thoughtful that actually reminds people of know why plastics has become such an indispensable part of everyone's life," Salmon said. "So education is going to play a huge role."
Customers are sticking with plastics packaging, Salmon said, but they ask Berry about things like how to lightweight, help them design for sustainability, talk about available technologies, what it will cost and how it's going to affect physical properties and appearance.
"So there's a lot of that education going on right now, with the brands that we serve," Salmon said.
The two executives advocated a well-rounded strategy for the plastics industry, including mechanical recycling, chemical recycling, bio-based materials and waste-to-energy.
It can be difficult to recycle complex multilayer packaging made with different materials. But Fitterling said catalysts could offer an answer.
"If we can come back and figure out how to make near-homogenous type products that can be more of a single material that can have the same properties as those multi-layer materials, you can maybe change the value equation where we can make large-scale homogenous products out of new catalysts that can replace very complicated and hard to manufacture, sometimes complicated structures for packaging," he said.
Fitterling said plastics and chemical engineers have an important role.
"From a plastics engineering standpoint, from a research standpoint, going back to catalyst fundamentals and being able to scale that up on a big scale maybe the biggest and lowest-cost solutions that we've got," he said.
Salmon encouraged SPE members in the webcast Antec to get the facts and work to defend plastics.
"Because clearly relative to the environmental footprint from a greenhouse gas perspective … solid waste, water, the plastics industry has an incredible story and we've got to educate the world on that story in what is an incredibly emotional topic, and we get that," Salmon said. "But let's train our people so that they feel empowered to do just that."