Is the Plastics Industry Association Finally Ready to Get in the Ring and Fight Back?

After more than a decade on the receiving end of plastics-bashing from various environmental groups, the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) has finally upped its game to fight back: “Plastics Industry Association Names Three New VPs.” But is this too little, too late?

businessman wearing boxing gloves

There was a time when the major players in the plastics industry — the big resin producers primarily — promoted plastics’ benefits in our lives with TV ads and slogans, such as “Plastic Makes It Possible” and “We don’t make the products you buy — we make the products you buy better.” Somewhere along the line that messaging stopped and a void was created.

You know what happens when there’s a void? Something comes along to fill it. That something turned out to be the many activist groups who put plastics in their sights, targeting the material through the use of hard-hitting campaigns. And those groups know how to create a message that resonates with consumers.

Activist groups such as Greenpeace and As You Sow launched campaigns to pressure large consumer goods companies (CPGs) and brand owners such as Kraft, Mondelez, McDonalds, and Starbucks to ditch plastics. These activist groups would often present proposals calling for an end to the use of plastics in the company’s packaging to be voted on by shareholders at annual corporate board of director meetings.

Then, press releases would be distributed declaring that shareholders had voted to eliminate plastic packaging by a certain date. Often the shareholder vote was around 33% — it was rarely unanimous — but these activist organizations were quite successful in their “green-shaming” efforts.

These efforts also managed to hurt PLASTICS, as the activist groups went after member companies, specifically big brands such as Procter & Gamble, S.C. Johnson, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola, all of which left the industry trade association in 2019. Greenpeace publicly claimed “victory” and promised that “this trend will continue,” as if crippling a trade organization would result in the elimination of plastic.

I questioned then-CEO Bill Carteaux about the organization’s seemingly “quiet” stance. Why, I asked him nearly two years ago, can’t PLASTICS do what these activist groups are doing? If they can sit at the table of a board of directors meeting, why can’t we be there with our own proposals for sustainability goals that don't eliminate plastics?

On Aug. 18, 2018, Carteaux responded. “The problem is one of funding,” he wrote. “Everyone is quick to point out that we need to speak up as an industry, but when asked for money to do so, it falls on deaf ears. Very few companies and executives are willing to pay for what is really needed. . . . In the fall of 2008, we (SPI at the time) proposed a multi-year, social-media campaign to change the narrative and to get our side of the story out. The proposal was presented to our board of directors. No one was willing to step up to fund the campaign and it fell by the wayside. Look where we are today based on that. Can you imagine where we might be today had we done that back then?”

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