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Set the sustainability agenda

Processors do not want to be caught out by legislation that forces unreasonable demands on the plastics industry.


Sustainability is not just a fad. Rather, it is a basic conservative value. One definition of it might be, “Don’t throw away good stuff.” Anyone who thought it was a fad should have attended the Nova-Pack packaging conference in Florida last month, where he would have heard the leading executives of some of North America’s largest rigid plastics packaging processors go on record in support of mandatory recycling regulations for, at the least, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) containers. These executives cited two clear truths: voluntary PET recycling has been a failure, and recycling is going to happen, whether the plastics industry wants it to or not.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) should be one of the easiest plastics to recycle. In most applications it has a distinctive appearance (transparent beverage bottle). PET containers are easily identified by the “1” resin identification code on or near the bottom of the container. Recycling technology for the material is well developed and there is a ready market for the washed, collected, recycled material (although much of the collected post-consumer PET in the U.S. is being exported to Asia).
Yet after three years of strong growth, still less than 25% of the PET used in rigid packaging in the U.S. is recycled, and that amount stems almost entirely from the handful of states that have some sort of mandatory recycling.
Sustainability has come to mean many things; the number of companies painting themselves as sustainable because they have lowered their energy bill, or cut weight out of a project, are legion. These efforts are to be applauded but they are not necessarily new, and the sustainability aspect is a byproduct of the company’s effort to save money. It’s a win-win situation, sure, but a plastics processor is hardly a risk-taker if he cuts cost out of a project; he’s just smart.
But when processors openly say they support federal legislation which will mandate recycling…well, that qualifies as risk taking, especially when one considers that the various packaging associations to which their companies pay membership continue to fight against any form of legislation. V. Lance Mitchell, president of closure molder Closure Systems Intl. (until recently Alcoa CSI), minced no words when he said to the 300-plus processors, brandowners, and others in attendance, “Mandatory recycling is a must—and we [the plastics industry] need to set the agenda.” He recognizes what is quickly becoming clear: legislation is going to happen eventually, and if the plastics industry does not unite to help lawmakers develop the appropriate legislation, then processors will be stuck with laws that, most likely, will be full of flaws and, based on what we have seen in the past, probably will have an anti-plastics bias.
It would be a wonderful and wise move for the industry to get in front of the sustainability dialogue and help set the agenda for it. The industry needs to be prepared for a rough ride, though, starting with consumer education. A recent survey by Perception Research Services Inc. revealed that a majority of the 5000 shoppers interviewed assumed ‘sustainability’ described a package’s durability.
If it was easy, it would have already happened.
Matt Defosse, Editor-in-Chief
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