Misplaced anti-plastics sentiment is here to stay, but industry is adjusting

In the space of just a couple of years, sustainability and associated regulations targeting plastics have evolved from a non-topic in industry boardrooms to a top-line concern. As I mentioned in a recent preview of K 2019, the plastics industry’s premier global event, sustainability and the circular economy will be a major theme at the trade show. The tipping point, one could argue, was the Blue Planet II television series from 2017 presented by Sir David Attenborough, which showed “harrowing images of sea life ensnared in plastic bags,” writes the Economist in this week’s Schumpeter column.

Since the airing of that influential series, 127 countries have placed restrictions on plastic bags, according to the United Nations; Britain is considering a tax on plastic packaging made with less than 30% recycled content; and the European Parliament backed a law, in a lop-sided 560 to 35 vote, to require 90% of plastic bottles to be recycled by 2029, notes the Economist. That is, if any plastic bottles are left in the recycling stream by then.

bandwagon metaphor

PlasticsToday reported yesterday that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have decided to withdraw their membership from the Plastics Industry Association because, in the words of a Coca-Cola spokesperson, “the positions the organization was taking . . . were not fully consistent with our commitments and goals.” Clare Goldsberry, who blogged about this, wondered if the beverage giants were thinking of going back to reusable glass bottles. As she rightly points out in her article, glass and other alternative materials have a far greater environmental impact than plastics when you take into account the energy and other resources consumed in their fabrication and reuse. The Economist agrees.

“Given the environmental footprint of substitutes like cotton bags, aluminium cans or paper boxes—which often require more energy and water to make and transport than plastic equivalents—new regulations could in fact end up doing harm to the planet,” writes the Economist. But that fact won’t derail the anti-plastics bandwagon, and industry has taken note.

One analyst quoted by the Economist projects that soft-drink companies that fail to reduce their reliance on virgin plastics could see annual profits shrink by 5% over the next decade as a result of regulations and taxes. In fact, the entire plastics supply chain could take a hit. The same analyst said that five big makers of plastic packaging could see pre-tax profits shrink by as much as 33% if they continue to use virgin plastics. More plastics regulation also could reduce demand for petrochemicals by one-sixth in the next 20 years. And on and on.

Those statistics will cheer activist organizations—although, they will remind supporters, this is only a small victory in an ongoing crusade. The $375-billion plastic packaging value chain will see things differently, but it has limited maneuverability.

So, from a public relations perspective and even at an existential business level, it’s not surprising to see purveyors of consumer products and materials suppliers bow to public opinion and explore reusable alternatives and new technologies, such as chemical recycling, even if the economics don’t quite add up. But let’s not kid ourselves that by ridding the world of plastic we are saving the planet—the alternatives could be far worse in the long run.

Image: Fotomek/Adobe Stock

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