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Plastics industry must punch back against greens to save image

Sometimes it seems like the plastics industry is fighting a losing battle.

Sometimes it seems like the plastics industry is fighting a losing battle. I receive press releases on a weekly basis from various environmental groups (two of which I've written about recently: Going green and Lumber Liquidators) touting their success in getting big companies like Kraft Foods, P&G and others to replace plastic packaging with paperboard or to eliminate some really high-end barrier packaging technology in favor of only plastic packaging that is recyclable.

They accomplish this through what one group calls "innovative legal strategies" that include proposals to shareholders who then vote on these proposals. Typically, 25 to 30% of shareholders approve the proposals. Other groups hire professional lobbyists to promote their agenda, as Upstream recently did when it hired Jamie Rhodes, an environmental attorney and "seasoned campaigner," as its new Program Director.

Rhodes, said the release, will be leading Upstream's four major projects:

  • Sustainable Packaging Policy—a major stakeholder engagement project to develop and advance sustainable packaging through public and corporate policies;
  • Make It, Take It Campaign—a collaborative effort to pressure companies to take responsibility for packaging waste;
  • The Plastic Pollution Policy Project (P4), which identifies, engages, and resources key stakeholders to stop plastic pollution at the source through effective policies and innovative solution;
  • and the Toxic Free Furniture Stewardship Project, which works to develop and implement policies that address the coming wave of unwanted couches and furniture contaminated with flame retardants.
fist by patrisyu
Image courtesy patrisyu/freedigitalphotos.net.

Upstream sent out a release last summer in which it announced that a "group of public interest organizations called on Walmart and eight other companies involved in the recently launched Closed Loop Recycling loan fund to support proven policies to boost recycling, like extended producer responsibility (EPR). EPR is a policy approach that makes consumer goods companies responsible for financing the collection of packaging and meeting recycling targets. EPR shifts financial and management responsibilities for collecting and recycling packaging from local governments and taxpayers to producers and consumers."

What all this means is that companies that make packaging (and here I'm assuming that plastic packaging is the primary target) will be forced to eliminate plastic packaging, specifically newer plastic barrier technology packaging that is difficult to recycle or packaging that has multiple plastic types such as plastic bottles or to take back what they make and deal with it themselves.

Last summer, in a release from Make It, Take It (subtitled Packaging waste, meet your maker), the group announced that a "coalition of more than 20 national and state public interest groups released a letter calling on Kraft Foods to take responsibility for packaging waste." Kraft Foods Group has also been hit by As You Sow, an environmental group that is pressuring the company to eliminate the company's "Capri Sun package that is made from a foil/plastic laminate that cannot be recycled into new pouches and is rarely collected for postconsumer recovery," said the release, adding that the Capri Sun product "could be dispensed in recyclable PET plastic or glass bottles, paper cartons or aluminum cans."

At least they included PET plastic in the list of alternatives. They don't mention that the paper cartons need a coating and liner to prevent the liquid from seeping through the paper, and if paper has a wax coating or plastic lining, the paper won't recycle. Nor do they mention the energy intensity of making paper (including the thousands of gallons of water it takes to make paper). Nothing is said about the energy intensity of making glass, and the fact that many schools will not allow children to bring drinks in glass containers because of the danger of breakage and injuries. Capri Sun is a staple in many students' lunchboxes.

The release noted that "an estimated 1.4 billion Capri Sun pouches are landfilled or littered each year in the United States. Stacked end to end, that's enough pouches to wrap around the Earth almost five times (121,527 miles). The groups sent Capri Sun–targeted e-mail actions to more than 250,000 people around the United States, and reached many more through social media," said the release.

The Make It, Take It campaign involves groups that are "collectively working for consumer goods companies to redesign environmentally harmful packaging and support policies to ensure packaging is reduced and reused or recycled." They also want companies to use recycled content in packaging, which is not allowed in some food packaging because of FDA regulations. They are also asking for "policies to ensure 90% of packaging gets reused, recycled or composted, and to help mitigate packaging that winds up in the environment, especially plastic packaging." (Italics are mine.)

I'll give them credit for asking companies to minimize unnecessary packaging, something that I've seen in some of the Kraft packaging for cheese.

But I'm not sure that it's a good idea to coerce consumer goods producers to get into the recycling business (although I hear there's a lot of money in it) and relieve cities and municipalities of the not-so-green task of driving around and picking up recyclables, hauling them to the recycling facility and then trucking them to a reclamation plant or to the docks where they are loaded onto cargo ships and sent to China for reprocessing.

While there's nothing really wrong with consumer companies' efforts to reduce materials and consider recyclability in packaging, technology in the plastics industry is always bringing about new packaging that, when considered as a whole (i.e., all the energy it takes to make, take and recycle any type of packaging) results in lower manufacturing costs and greener outcomes.

I'll continue to vote for WTE (waste to energy) when it comes to plastics. As for getting plastics out of the environment, these environmental groups (who are obviously making money somehow, but that's another blog after I do more research) would be better off implementing a campaign teaching people not to be litterbugs!

We in the industry have to stay on the forefront of the science of plastics to prevent those peddling pseudo-science and hype from destroying an industry that has resulted in more energy savings than many others. As Michael Taylor, Vice President of International Affairs and Trade for SPI said recently at the Global Plastics Summit in Chicago: "If you don't deal with public opinion (about plastics), it will deal with you."

It's time the plastics industry started controlling the message of the science instead of continually responding to those leading the fight against plastics.

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