Picture the scene: You introduce yourself at a party. “Hi, I’m Mr/Mrs Industrial, and I work in plastics.”
Immediately, the room goes silent, a glass smashes and every pair of eyes is on you. Someone tuts. You quietly back out the door, placing your (single use plastic) cup on the table.
Ok, that’s not quite where plastics professionals are yet, but as coverage increases, the plastics industry seems to be taking on more and more of a taboo. Stats like, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish only exacerbate the situation further.
Are plastics professionals on the way to being seen as pariahs like many see tobacco industry executives today?
I don’t think so – and I’ll explain why later – but even for me it’s a difficult balance to maintain as I’m representing an industry that has, for the last few years at least, had a pretty bad rep.
It becomes hard to know what to share with my network. My clients probably won’t be thrilled if I post an article bemoaning plastic’s environmental impact, but at the same time what if I say that plastics are just great? Doesn’t that mean the earth will turn into a smouldering wasteland full of plastic fish?
It’s not actually the products themselves that are the problem – it’s the way in which they’re used after production that are causing a lot of the environmental issues associated with it.
It’s a thin (and probably plastic) tightrope to walk, but I believe that all is not lost for the industry (what a relief!). Here’s three reasons why plastic isn’t the new tobacco:
1. Corporate Attitudes
In the past, tobacco companies have spent millions trying to disseminate ‘fake news’ around the dangers of smoking. What started in the 50’s with doctors signing up to promote certain brands of cigarette turned into glamorous sponsorships for major sporting teams and events before that was banned too. They were trying to control the conversation.
In contrast plastics companies are joining in and leading the conversation on environmental issues, as well as talking about how they’re trying to combat it.
Global mega brands have joined in too. Football teams like Real Madrid and Manchester United have released kits made entirely from reclaimed ocean plastic and Adidas announced last year that they sold over one million shoes made from the same material.
As collective public attitudes have shifted, we’re now seeing a range of companies doing their bit to tackle the problem head on, but none so more than the companies who manufacture the stuff.
As you may expect, political change comes off the back off public outcry.
January 2018 saw the first ever Europe-wise plastics strategy. They aim for all plastic packaging on the EU market to be recyclable or reusable by 2030, and a reduction of single use plastics.
This has come in response to overwhelming public pressure and concerns about the impact of plastics. In a recent survey, 87% of respondents said that they were worried about the effect of plastics on the environment.
There’s proof that progress can be made though. Enter Norway.
A few years ago, they implemented a deposit scheme for plastic bottles and cans. The success has been staggering.
Today, more than 97% of all plastic drinks bottles in Norway are recycled, 92% of which can be turned back into plastic bottles. This means that less than 1% of bottles end up at landfill.
The system works through the government placing an environmental tax on all producers of plastic bottles. The more they recycle, the more the tax is reduced. Recycle more than 95% of plastic bottles and the tax is eliminated. All the producers impacted by the tax have hit the 95% mark since 2011.
The customer also receives a monetary reward for recycling their bottle at the point of purchase – incentivising them to take bottles back. To put the success of the scheme into perspective, the 97% figure boasted by the Norwegians is contrasted by a paltry 50% of bottles being recycled in the UK, who don’t use this scheme.
The model has also seen success in other European countries and plans were also announced to roll out such a scheme in the UK too.
It’s estimated that over 200,000 barrels of oil – also not an environmentally friendly resource - are used to make plastic packaging for the United States every day. That means that the R&D surrounding biologically sourced, non-petroleum-based plastics and packaging has been one of the most important issues for the industry to tackle.
It’s an extremely exciting concept and, whilst bioplastics are still in their relative infancy, there are a number of different companies working to develop them. They’re all using the latest technology to help make bioplastics an environmentally viable option on the sort of scale plastics are produced today.
Companies like Solvay, Stora Enso and BASF are all committed to producing more bioplastics than ever before, which will be carbon neutral through production and usage at least.
Petroleum product producer Neste have made a commitment to bioplastics, claiming to be the first company to produce biological polypropylene plastic at a commercial scale. They’ve also partnered with IKEA to integrate bio-based plastic into their production processes. Meaning that your next ‘Billy’ bookcase could be more sustainable than ever.
The Future Is Bright
So, to summarise, we’re not perfect, but I think we’re getting there. Hopefully, we’re now in a position where a perfect storm of circumstances will combine to see the global plastics industry do their bit to contribute to the global effort to reduce environmental damage.
There’s still a huge amount of work to be done, but I’m hopeful that the industry is doing enough to distance themselves from a long-term negative reputation - meaning we’ll never have to experience those awkward, party-stopping introductions.
Globally, we’ve reached a tipping point when it comes to plastic. We produce more plastic waste than we know how, or are able, to deal with. Up until relatively recently the problem was masked by China shouldering the burden.