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Plastics, Sustainability And The Bottle Recycling Blind Spot
Yangzhou Chengsen Plastics Co.,Ltd | Updated: Mar 29, 2018

Article by Steve Toloken

By its own admission, the Plastics Industry Association was not an early adopter of sustainability.

Patty Long, the executive vice president of the Washington-based group, said it didn't see how sustainability fit into its core mission of helping sell more plastics.

"To be really honest, I have to admit that we came a little bit late to the sustainability table," she told a recent industry event on recycling.

"It wasn't really conscious neglect but we viewed ourselves and our mission for our members as about the business of plastics ... and so to us the business of plastics simply meant helping them sell as much, and make as much plastics as they possibly could."

But two things happened to broaden their thinking, both related to new members bringing in new ideas, according to Long.

She spoke to a room full of plastics and recycling industry folks at a Sept. 26 open house at the Ipswich, Mass., technical center for Erema Engineering Recycling Maschinen und Anlagen GmbH.

First, the group's larger material supplier members, the big publicly traded companies, said the association needed to do more with recycling and bring more plastics recycling companies and their perspectives to its membership.

And second, in a move that wasn't initially related to sustainability, the association made a conscious effort a few years ago to try to bring in large brand owning companies as members — big end users of plastics like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and John Deere.

It wound up getting a similar message from those brand owners. Public perceptions about plastics were key.

"For the first time, we really got a new understanding of the importance of public perception," Long said. "This really was a game changer for us in having the brand owners involved."

As several speakers at the Erema event noted, the problems around plastics waste are creating an image problem for the industry, in addition to a waste problem for societies around the world.

Long was speaking at the Erema event to a large crowd of people from plastics recycling companies, explaining her association's transformation in thinking about recycling and sustainability.

It was a good crowd for the discussion. Erema, an Austrian company, says it is the largest maker of plastics recycling equipment worldwide.

Long ticked off several steps the group is taking, including bringing a big sustainability focus to its NPE trade show.

It's also launched pilot projects working with hospitals and retailers to develop easily replicable programs to increase plastics recycling in those places.

And it's started a program to help plastics factories certify as zero waste, if they want to go that route.

But there's a major blind spot I see in the industry's efforts, and that's around bottle recycling.

I asked Long in the Q&A if the industry association's new embrace of recycling would ever mean it would support bottle bills.

If you study bottle recycling, the only way to consistently get very high rates, above 80 or 90 percent recycling, is through bottle bills.

The national recycling rate in the U.S. for bottles has hovered around 30 percent for years, but in states with bottle bills (like Massachusetts), the recycling rate is in that 80-plus percent range.

And the U.S. lags some other countries. Germany recycles more than 90 percent of its bottles. Packaging industry groups there credit its bottle bill system.

If the industry's going to be for zero waste in the factory, it should endorse proven, effective government policy that gets to zero waste (or close to it) in consumer products like plastic bottles.

I didn't get the sense from Long that the association will endorse bottle bills. It has a broad membership base, including bottle bill opponents like Coke and Pepsi, that make that a hard sell.

Plus, those beverage companies are key customers for some segments of the industry. It's hard to go against your customers.

But the plastics association's thinking clearly is changing.

Long said the association wants to move from "being against everything to being for something. We're not quite there yet."

"We are in the process of evaluating a lot of those more proactive legislative solutions because I do believe there needs to be something that's got a little more teeth in it," she said.

"We are exploring becoming more outspoken on the concept of sustainable materials management and being for that as opposed to saying no, no, no all the time."

What form that will take, I can't say. But the ground is shifting on sustainability.

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