The recent Perspective column on the public's perception of plastics ["The public's image of plastics is based on falsehoods," Jan. 24, Page 6] is a great example of how one can be wrong while being right.
The author bemoans both the public for being misinformed and the media for misinforming them. Yet his own experience contains the germ of the real solution: engagement on a personal level. For every hair pulled from the collective scalp of the plastics industry, there is an equal number of seeds planted when individual plastics professionals engage their neighbors, partners, children, school boards, etc., in a knowledgeable and nondramatic way.
Frankly, it does no one any good to claim that children are "being lied to" in schools or "politicians are spreading falsehoods." Moreover, it does even less good to suggest that "industry" should develop an advertising campaign to combat negative information about plastics and the environment. If polls are to be believed and people's faith in institutions is declining, why on earth would they believe the "plastics industry"?
Just as the author was able to change his friend's perspective, I have seen multiple instances of minds being changed when the table is set for a proper discussion. One instance in particular, in Cambridge, Mass. — of all places — stands out to me. Professor (now retired) Bob Malloy of UMass Lowell was invited to speak to the Boston Area Sustainability Group. Instead of pitchforks and folded arms, he was met with genuine curiosity about the complexities of polymers. Instead of "no burn/no bury" signs, he led a civilized discussion about why it is so difficult to manage end-of-life issues for plastics given their flexibility and ubiquity. No one stormed out. No one accused anyone of lying. It was just an honest, tough discussion that required attendees to have the ability to be comfortable with ambiguity.
There is no quick fix here. Those of us in the industry have to roll up our sleeves and recognize that we are the best ambassadors, if not for industry per se, then for the materials we work with every day. At SPE, we have often been asked, "What is SPE doing about sustainability?" Yes, we have our specialized divisions that focus on materials and technologies. Yes, we have a board position and technical programs and networking events designed to share knowledge, but that's not enough. The real answer is, "Whatever you're doing about it." Because SPE is a global community of members, of plastic professionals who are the closest to the topic of the hour, it requires sustained effort on the part of many individuals over a long period of time.
When the EPA's National Recycling Strategy was put up for public comment, I logged in to offer my two cents. Of the 30-plus comments visible at the time — not a lot, mind you — I recognized at least half of the commentators as individual SPE members. That's pretty powerful.
I'm tempted to invoke Margaret Mead's dictum about the only thing that can change the world … but perhaps you'll enjoy it more if you look it up yourself.
Conor Carlin is the vice president of sustainability for the Society of Plastics Engineers.