Brand owners and plastics companies have been making a lot of voluntary pledges related to plastics packaging in the past year. Some of those goals may be difficult or expensive to achieve.
I'm confident that many companies will achieve their goals, especially when they call for making packages easier to recycle or using incrementally more recycled content. The plastics industry has the technology to make that happen.
Others will fall short of their goals. That's a simple fact. It's happened before. When I joined the newspaper in February 1991, the plastics industry was under the gun, just like today. Consumers were boycotting McDonald's, demanding an end to polystyrene burger clamshells.
Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. were under fire for using single-serve PET bottles. We weren't that far removed from the days when all colas were packaged in refillable glass bottles.
Polystyrene and PET resin makers tried to solve the problem by making recycling-related pledges. Major PS suppliers formed the National Polystyrene Recycling Co., which planned to build a network of recycling plants around the country. NPRC pledged to recycle 250 million pounds of PS per year by 1995.
On the PET side, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., and Hoechst Celanese Corp. teamed up with Pepsi and Coke, respectively, on plans to use chemically recycled PET.
And that wasn't all. Lever Bros. Co. and Procter & Gamble Co. both announced plans to use recycled plastic in detergent and fabric softener bottles.
And to top them all, the Council for Solid Waste Solutions set a goal to recycle 25 percent of post-consumer bottles and containers by 1995. To reach that ambitious target, many big virgin resin companies — Quantum Chemical, Union Carbide, Phillips 66 — opened modern recycling plants.
We saw a lot of progress, and public pressure on plastics became less heated. But, unfortunately, within a few years, many of those efforts crashed and burned.
I used to write an annual recycling report card for Plastics News in those days, and believe me, there were a lot of failing grades. These companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying, but found that they could not fight market forces.
Maybe the plastics industry will do better this time. I hope so because it feels like public pressure won't go away as quickly as it did in the 1990s.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.