You hear this a lot in the plastics industry these days: We have an image problem, and what should we do about it?
The discussions, like two panels at a recent industry conference I was part of virtually, will note the environmental problems and then argue that people don't understand the benefits of plastics, and if they did, the industry wouldn't have so many black eyes with the public.
Let me add a different perspective, as a Plastics News reporter who's been around the topic awhile. I'll use a social media comment from a longtime industry consultant to start my point. Patty Moore Bongiovanni, a well-known name in the PET recycling sector, on Oct. 19 was reacting on Twitter to the American Chemistry Council and its plastics division endorsing extended producer responsibility.
If EPR is not something you follow closely, when ACC said in July it favored the idea of EPR to fund recycling, it was a big step. EPR programs basically put the packaging and consumer goods industry on the hook for paying a lot more of the costs of recycling, instead of mainly taxpayers.
Moore Bongiovanni's comment was along the lines of, "What took you so long?"
She wrote that she and another recycling industry consultant some will also know, Nina Belluci Butler, tried hard to get ACC to support producer responsibility years ago. She said: "@NinaFBelluci and I tried very very hard to get @AmChemistry members to agree to this >5 years ago. So glad they finally realize it is the RIGHT MOVE!"
On that panel I listened to, people talked about the industry being "flat-footed" and not as nimble as some competing materials in telling their stories. One example given was that the industry should seek out actors like Aquaman performer Jason Momoa, as one aluminum packaging company did.
The implication is that, somehow, the main challenge is how you tell the story.
But wouldn't the industry's image be different, wouldn't it have a story that's much better to tell, if at the beginning of the fracking boom a decade ago it had done what it's doing now: endorsing EPR or bottle bills as a practical way to pay for more recycling collection, or investing hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in the private sector side of recycling?
I don't want to single out ACC, because it deserves credit for coming out with detailed plans — national standards for 30 percent recycled content, EPR, support for a global plastics treaty. It's more than some other industry groups have done.
Some of the industry arguments come down to, in the use phase, plastics have a better environmental footprint.
That's a very valid point. In fact, it's a great point. You don't want a one-to-one substitution with a material with a worse environmental performance.
But it's also not an excuse to have a 13 percent plastic packaging recycling rate, or single-digit levels of recycled content in packaging.
And it's not an answer to questions about environmental pollution in communities around plastics plants. EPA Administrator Michael Regan this month has been on a five-day environmental justice tour of those communities in the petrochemical zones in Louisiana and Texas, the first time such a high-ranking federal official has done that.
The industry has a recycling problem, it has an image problem and it has a problem with not being a circular material.
Most of the U.S. industry has a problem with not being circular. In that sense, plastics is not so different. But increasingly, there are studies and reports saying it will be hard for the plastics sector to be circular until it can break its connection to fossil fuels, or decouple, as the term of art is.
While it may sound like it's a far-off idea, companies like Berry Global are talking about long-term "visions" of decoupling their plastics use from fossil fuels.
One speaker at that same conference with the image panel talked about how decarbonizing the plastics industry, and all industries, is a priority for the Biden administration. The Department of Energy official said pointedly that the steep growth in virgin resin production will make it challenging for the U.S. to keep within its carbon budget.
Plastics are a marvel of science. There are so many ways they enable modern life, and they play a key role in improving the environmental performance and decarbonizing other industries.
But as I was listening to the image panel at that industry conference, I kept hoping the discussion would turn those real challenges — recycling, pollution, decarbonization — and how maybe the industry was "flat-footed" in not making the right investments and environmental changes earlier.
Steve Toloken is a Plastics News assistant managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.