I have been in the plastics industry my entire career (more than 48 years). I have held positions in manufacturing, technology and general management.
I recently attended the COVID-delayed anniversary of my 50th high school graduation and was seated next to the spouse of a fellow graduate, an intelligent, educated finance professional who has spent most of his career in government.
When I mentioned to him that I worked in the plastics industry, he said, "We have to do something about all these plastic bags." When I told him that plastic bags have a smaller carbon footprint than paper, he looked perplexed and countered with "but plastic isn't biodegradable."
Rather than try to educate him on biodegradation, I told him that paper doesn't degrade in landfills and that the way old landfills are dated is by digging down into the landfill and reading the dates of discarded newspapers. It was pretty easy to change his view by just sharing a few facts.
As I read and listen to the news, it is incredibly obvious that the public and the news media are woefully uninformed. I guess this falls into the category of "a falsehood repeated often enough is eventually accepted as truth." I think there are something like 29 independent life cycle analyses that have proven that plastic bags are greener than paper.
What frustrates and confounds me is that plastics industry groups have done little to try and change public perception. They focus instead on those within the plastics industry who pay their dues.
The problem is the perception that exists within the general public, the media and government is wrong and not based in fact. Furthermore, those in the media and government seem unwilling to challenge public opinion, even when presented with facts.
The exchange at my high school reunion is typical and occurs frequently. Continuing to let the public, politicians and those who regulate industry believe these untruthful allegations poses a serious threat to our industry. Almost every day we hear about companies changing from plastics to less green alternatives. Furthermore, legislation is introduced at federal, state and local levels to ban the use of plastics in various applications.
My suggestion is that plastics industry groups, with the help of scientists who are experts in this area, put together a media campaign focused on a single, widely held but inaccurate belief, like the plastic vs. paper bag. While there are many other examples where plastics are being unfairly disparaged, putting forth simple indisputable facts that the public can understand focused a single issue would go a long way toward changing the public perception of this issue and hopefully will cause people to question some of the other falsehoods put forth about plastics.
I'm not suggesting the plastics industry is without fault. For example, plastic parts need to be designed so that they are more easily recycled. Think about all the plastic products that have paper labels. The paper and the glue that adheres the label to the plastic drastically increases recycling costs. Another example of waste is large plastic packages that hold a small amount of product. This is prevalent in the food and health care industries to make the consumer think they're getting more product than they actually are. Additionally, we need deposits on plastic bottles and much tougher laws against littering/dumping.
Although plastics represent a small percentage of the waste in landfills and waterways, plastics seem to get most of the blame.
Much of this was discussed in Don Loepp's November 2021 editorial ["Plastics doesn't have a recycling problem; it has an image problem"] but, once again, the industry organizations that are supposed to speak on behalf of our industry say and do little. If we care about this industry, we must recognize the importance of public opinion and take real, meaningful steps to change the falsehoods the public believes to be true.
Keith Rodden is president of Compound Solutions LLC in Lebanon, Tenn.