The plastic bag business is very important in Trent Romer's life.
He's a third-generation owner of Clear View Bag Co. in Albany, N.Y., and talks enthusiastically about his family's history building the firm and the 70 employees working there.
But he had a problem. Society's concerns about plastics waste in the environment were really getting to him, and he felt sympathetic.
"I did not feel great about the product we made," he said. "I had my own personal conundrum."
That dissonance launched him on a path to find different business models, one that led him write a newly published book, Finding Sustainability: The Personal and Professional Journey of a Plastic Bag Manufacturer.
In the book, Romer writes about being torn. There's the positive role of plastics in daily life, like in food protection and medical devices, and the jobs it provides at his company.
But Romer, who's been in the bag business more than 25 years, said he was weighing that against the environmental problems from waste and our "linear mindset focused on convenience."
He said he was thinking a lot about it when he saw the iconic 2018 National Geographic magazine cover, with a plastic bag shaped like an iceberg, as part of its "Planet or Plastic?" initiative.
"The National Geographic June 2018 cover really was almost a surreal moment for me, it confirmed everything that I kind of thought and it really pushed me to say, 'It's time to do something,' " he said in an interview with Plastics News.
His book details an ongoing journey to try to adapt the company's mission, while protecting the livelihoods of employees and their families.
Romer spelled it out at the beginning of his introductory chapter.
"What if the foundation of your family business were threatened by something out of your control?" he wrote. "What if the reason were actually one with which you fundamentally agreed?"
He describes how a lifetime of camping, hiking and canoeing trips was a big personal motivator to take the steps, and he returns to outdoor and nature metaphors throughout the 126-page book.
Romer said his work is not meant to provide a definitive answer for anybody.
"I'm no scientist, but I feel like I try to bridge that gap between what the science and the facts are saying and what we can do in everyday life as individuals and small-business owners," he said. "I try to stay in my lane."
What emerges is a picture of a work in progress at one small company.
Some of the details will be familiar to anybody in the spider web of the packaging supply chain. He talks about searching out suppliers of alternative materials like recycled-content plastics or bio-based or compostable resins to move away from fossil fuel materials.
He related taking a scouting mission to a supermarket in Amsterdam with plastic-free aisles on a side trip from a conference to see if it would be a "glimpse into the future."
There, he said he found it "alarming" to see "Plastic Free" logos. And he said he was intrigued by package labels that included information on greenhouse gas emissions, like an environmental version of nutritional labeling, to give consumers more buying information.
He has sections on attending conferences with other executives, joining the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and taking a deep dive into the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy project, trying to find guidance relevant to his small company so they could start taking steps.
"We're a 70-person company; we qualify as a small manufacturer," Romer said. "For the longest time I felt like, 'What are we going to do?'"