Chicago - Plastic bottles scattered across a beach. Plastic bags clinging to a tree. These are a few of society's (un)favorite things.
"My apologizes for the uncomfortable pictures - but they are powerful images," said Kim Holmes, director of recycling and diversion at SPI, who showed pictures of plastic litter at the Global Plastics Summit. "The perception of plastics is often a negative interaction with plastics - the material littering the environment."
Holmes said people don't seem to feel conflicted over glass, aluminum and paper. In fact, people feel good about recycling them.
"There has never been a proposed ban exclusively on paper bags, despite the fact that they have a higher carbon footprint, they are more expensive and they produce methane at the end of life," she said. "They are widely accepted in curbside recycling programs and therefore perceived as better for the environment."
During his presentation at the Global Plastics Summit, Dow Chemical's Greg Jozwiak talked about shale gas providing an addressable market opportunity in packaging for PE.
The packaging industry was a $173 billion industry in 2012, with about paperboard accounting for $57 billion. PE in packaging was reportedly $12.3 billion.
But unless the overall perception of plastics changes, material substitution will be an uphill battle.
"Expanding the use of plastic in packaging will be a challenging thing to do if people don't feel good about the product," she said. "Proactively expanding recycling and recovery for plastics should be a priority for everyone in this room."
According to the EPA, there was a 8.3% recovery rate for all plastics in 2011. Also in 2011, 4.5 billion lb of plastic was recovered in the U.S.
Demand for U.S. post-consumer recycled plastic is expected to rise 6% per year to nearly 3.5 billion lb in 2016, according to the Freedonia Group.
With regards to PCR, some of the traditional end markets include food packaging, fiber applications and plastic lumber. However, Holmes believes there's opportunity to increase it into other applications such as computers and refrigerators.
Holmes said that there is a very strong business case for offering recycled resins. A recent 2013 survey of SPI members revealed 68% of respondents have been asked by customers to offer or use recycled resins. Specifically for packaging, a California rigid packaging law requires 25% PCR content on most packaging.
"Converters making high performance, UL-rated and other critical parts will need recycle content plastics from resin suppliers who can provide tractability and performance warranties," she said.
"We need to all work to change the perception of plastic to make it become the material of choice," she said. "Work recycling into your business models - I highly encourage you all to do so."
I was glad to see that the conference had Kim speak to the audience of plastic professionals about sustainability. It's such a key topic. The reality is even though you may believe plastics is the superior material, there is a negative public perception about it. Instead of assuming people just aren't educated - do something about it. Like Kim said, work recycling into your business models. Look into using recycled content.
After all, not all materials can be reused like plastics, so why not make the most out of it?