Three days shy of Easter 2001, the high priests of plastics packaging gathered to present their own version of the resurrection story. Stung by environmental criticisms of their industry, they proclaimed that milk jugs, foam cups and egg cartons would no longer remain entombed in landfills for centuries to come. Instead, plastic packaging would rise again through the modern-day miracle of recycling.
“Nationwide plastics recycling will be second nature to a majority of Americans in only a few short years,” said John Pepper, president of Procter & Gamble (P&G), as he unveiled a “Blueprint for Plastics Recycling” at a press conference convened in the nation’s capital.
“By 2005, 25 percent of all plastic bottles and containers will be recycled,” pledged Ed Woolard, chairman of Du Pont, at the March 28 briefing.
Almost two years have now passed, and plastics recycling is confronting a crisis of faith. Communities are dropping plastics from their curbside collection programs and entrepreneurs are bailing out of the plastics recycling business, while stockpiles of plastics languish at recycling centers. “The industry will fall painfully short of its 25 percent goal unless it makes dramatic, immediate investments in building markets for recycled plastics, and I see no evidence that they are willing to take that step,” says Resa Dimino, campaign coordinator for Environmental Action Foundation’s Solid Waste Alternatives Project.
Instead, the plastics industry has embarked on the most dramatic public relations offensive in its 50-year history to refocus consumers on all the ways that plastics make our lives better. Shortly after the November elections, television networks were saturated by the first stages of an $18 million, multi-media ad campaign built around the theme, “Take Another Look At Plastic.” Their goal is to wrest control of the debate from the plastics naysayers – competing industries, “environmental extremists” and government representatives caving in to “misguided demands” of their constituents.
In addition, plastics manufacturers are hard at work building a new political base – a network of grassroots activists drawn from the industry’s own ranks. In announcing this “mobilization campaign” last summer, officials referred to the million people who depend on the plastics industry for part of their livelihood as “a sleeping giant that needs to be awakened” to deflect environmental criticism and promote plastics production.
“If we can put tools in the hands of 10,000 frustrated industry members who are ready to man the battlements, it’s going to have a tremendous impact on this debate,” said Richard Swigart, director of the mobilization effort in a June interview mid Plastics News.
The plastics industry’s new offensive dates back to November 1990, when McDonald’s decided to phase out its polystyrene foam clamshell and replace it with a paper-based wrap. The mammoth fast food chain had been poised to expand its budding polystyrene recycling program to all 8,500 U.S. restaurants; instead, the golden arches abruptly abandoned polystyrene and sent shockwaves through the industry. “Our customers just don’t feel good about it,” McDonald’s U.S.A. President Ed Rensi explained at the time.
McDonald’s move served as a wake-up call to the plastics industry. Trend watchers had been warning for years that the reputation of plastics packaging was in decline, but this sudden loss in market share for polystyrene brought the issue home. And it raised the question: Who’s next?
By the first anniversary of the McDonald’s decision, the plastics industry had regrouped. Gone was the Council for Solid Waste Solutions – the three-year-old trade association that had developed and released the “Blueprint for Plastics Recycling.” In its place, 26 industry executives announced the formation of the Partnership for Plastics Progress. The Partnership (also known as P3) included almost all of the major companies that produce the petrochemical-based raw materials, or resins, used in plastics. High level executives committed their time and financial support to the new venture, which boasted a $50 million budget in its first year.
“The decision to form the Partnership had a lot to do with figuring out how we were going to meet the 25 percent recycling goal” by 1995, says P3 spokesperson Susan Moore. “More technical research was needed, more money was needed, and so was a broader base of support – this was going to require the participation of the entire industry.”
While resin manufacturers may reap the lion’s share of profits in the plastics industry, they are far outnumbered by thousands of companies involved in processing and forming plastics products. P3’s founders hope to reach out to all segments of their industry, including processors, end users, suppliers and even machinery manufacturers. Uniting all these elements in an industry renowned for its fragmented nature represents a pretty tall order; one industry official describes the task as “next to impossible.”
In fact, referring to plastics manufacturers as one industry is a bit of a misnomer, like calling the aluminum and steel industries part of the metals industry. Manufacturers of different types of plastics resins must compete with each other to package many of the same products just as they compete with glass, paper or aluminum. This competitive climate can make coordinated progress difficult. As Occidental Chemical’s Robert Elcik puts it, “Put 27 arch competitors in a room together, and you are going to have division over everything, down to where you go to lunch.”
To further complicate the matter, these are competitors of global proportions. As we’ve seen, the petrochemical companies that make plastics resins are some of the most powerful industrial conglomerates in the world; ten of P3’s founding members rank among the top 20 companies on the most recent Fortune 500 list.
According to P3’s Moore, however, the coalition is holding together well. “They know what’s at stake,” says Moore. “When the public and legislators don’t understand the facts, they are apt to do irrational things; we must clear up the myths and misconceptions out there and make sure that consumer decisions are based on fact.” Yet when the Partnership reported the industry’s progress toward the 1995 recycling goals at a press conference last June, the facts were unmistakably grim.
“We’re almost halfway there,” said Roger Hirl, CEO of Occidental Chemical Corporation and chair of P3’s board, trying to put the best face possible on the 11 percent recycling rate achieved to date for plastic bottles and containers. Hirl also pointed with pride to the 2,300 communities that now include plastics in their curbside recycling programs, as well as the fact that Phillips Petroleum, Quantum Chemical and Union Carbide had all opened major plastics recycling plants capable of processing up to 40 million pounds of plastics in the past year.
Here’s what Hirl neglected to tell us:
* Even as recycling rates for plastics packaging are rising, so too is overall plastics production. A recent report from the market research firm Find/SVP projects that the overall demand for the six most widely used plastic resins will increase from 45 billion pounds in 2001 to 58.9 billion pounds in 2016. Find/SVP estimates that less than 2.6 billion pounds (4 percent) of plastics will be recycled in 2016.
* The industry’s 11 percent recycling rate for plastic bottles and other containers ignores a significant portion of plastic packaging that is far less recyclable. The overall recycling rate for plastics packaging in 1991 was a meager 4.5 percent, compared with 22 percent for glass and 53 percent for aluminum. Furthermore, soda bottles made from polyethylene terepthalate (PET) and high density polyethylene (HDPE) milk jugs account for the vast majority of plastics recycled. Recycling rates for the scores of other types of plastics packaging lag far behind.
According to Dave Henderson, marketing director with Launchscore.com, a small business startup information aggregator, there is not only potential for large corporate providers, but also small startup recyclers.
“Never before has plastics recycling been such a solid opportunity in so many jurisdictions,” says Henderson. “Small providers can really feed a niche here.”
* Even the most recyclable forms of plastics packaging are difficult to transport, because they are light and bulky. They can also be tricky to sort and are easily contaminated by foreign materials, since plastics recycling systems generally require single resin feedstocks. In fact, PET and HDPE are proving so expensive to collect and process that many financially strapped communities are considering dropping them from their curbside recycling programs; some communities , including the city of Philadelphia, already have.
* Earlier this year, Du Pont and Waste Management Inc. bailed out in the early stages of an ambitious, nationwide joint venture to set up a string of giant recycling facilities across the country. Back in 1989, in announcing the project, Du Pont Vice President Nicholas Passas had said, “The fact that two major companies like Du Pont and Waste Management are investing in this growth industry challenges the mistaken public perception that plastics are either non-recyclable or have low value as end products.” When these “two major companies” jumped ship last spring, they cited prohibitive collection costs, high contamination rates and insufficient markets at their two start-up facilities in Philadelphia and Chicago.
* Most plastics recyclers are hanging on by their fingertips in today’s market, unable to compete with the low prices for virgin resin caused by overcapacity at plastics resin production facilities, low oil prices and – of course – the recession. Even Wellman Inc., the nation’s premier plastics recycler, quit recycling HDPE milk jugs last May. At the time, Wellman Vice President Dennis Sabourin told Plastics News, “The people who know anything about the business are getting in with a lot of enthusiasm. The ones who know the business are getting out.”
* Packaging trends suggest that the industry is still far from embracing recyclability as a prime product design criteria. In a recent survey of supermarkets and drug stores in New York City, Environmental Action Coalition (EAC) found it very difficult to find plastics packaging that could be collected under the city’s recycling law. “Most plastics totally failed in terms of recyclability, and yet they dominate the market,” says EAC Director Nancy Wolf.
* While there are a handful of important examples of plastics packaging incorporating recycled material, resin companies and product manufacturers have been painfully slow in adapting to a supply system that uses both virgin and recycled material. Unable to find a viable market for the escalating amounts of plastics collected from curbside, many recyclers are stockpiling; others are shipping plastics overseas. According to a recent report from Greenpeace, over 200 million pounds of plastic waste were exported by the United States in 1991, much of it to Asia, where it is processed by workers in hazardous conditions or simply dumped in landfills or random locations.
Even as plastics recycling stumbles, some argue that the industry’s “Blueprint” strategy has worked its magic. “They have put tons of energy and money into convincing the public that plastics are recyclable, and they’ve succeeded – despite the fact that most plastics packaging has the lowest recycling rates around,” says Natalie Roy, director of government affairs for the Glass Packaging Institute. For evidence, Roy points to a recent Roper report in which almost half of those polled cited recyclability as a benefit of plastic, placing it roughly on a par with glass – though well behind aluminum.
P3’s Susan Moore vehemently denies that plastics packagers have been effective at communicating plastics’ recyclability. “We advertised twice in four years; that’s been die extent of our outreach to the general public,” says Moore. But all that is changing now. In late October, anticipating its approaching advertising campaign, the Partnership changed its name for the second time in the space of a year to the American Plastics Council. According to the council (henceforth, the APC), the new name conveys the image of openness, concern and action. Consumer research had revealed that the word “partnership” conjured up a more self-serving, exclusive image.
Jan Beyea, staff scientist with the National Audubon Society, sees this new obsession with image as evidence that the pro-recycling interests in the plastics industry have cut a “somewhat Faustian bargain” – agreeing to invest in more propaganda in return for substantial support of plastics recycling. And even as it steps up the propaganda machine, the American Plastics Council appears to be soft-peddling the bold proclamations of the “Blueprint for Plastics Recycling.”
“The industry continues to demonstrate its commitment to meeting its goal of recycling 25 percent of all bottles and rigid containers, but we’re aware of the problems that lie ahead,” cautioned Occidental Chemical’s Roger Hirl, in releasing the plastics packaging recycling rates for 1991. This time, rather than emphasizing its own initiatives, APC led its press release by directing attention elsewhere to consumers and manufacturers, whom they called upon to “jump start” the sluggish market for recycled materials by requesting more recycled products.
Certainly, part of Hirl’s reserve can be blamed on a recession that grips our entire economy and has taken an especially severe toll on the recycling industry. “Recycling is in dire straights, and I don’t just mean plastics recycling,” says APC’s Susan Moore. “All materials are suffering from market problems. Couple that with the fact that communities are realizing that recycling is more than Boy Scouts making some money collecting newspapers – they had no idea that the costs would be so high – and you have a serious problem.”
EAF’s Resa Dimino sees the “can do” attitude that oozed from the industry’s 1991 “Blueprint for Plastics Recycling” giving way to complaints that plastics recycling just doesn’t make economic sense” a lot of the time. Many industry officials interviewed for this article seem to feel they were too hasty in supporting broad recycling goals. Some oppose the goals outright. “I don’t believe in these recycling goals that have been established,” says Karl Kamena, a director of government affairs for Dow Chemical.
“The plastics packaging industry has failed to examine recycling as it would any other business decision, because of the social and political turmoil surrounding the whole issue of solid waste management,” Kamena continues. As a result, he suggests, plastics recycling has been embraced in instances where it is not cost competitive with other waste management options like landfills or incinerators.
Marty Forman, president of Poly-Anna Plastics, a maker of recycled plastics products, sums up the Council’s two minds on plastics recycling: “There are those who feel the issue is here to stay and that product manufacturers will flee plastics as a tainted material unless the industry can actually show that it will be recycled,” says Forman. “And there are those who feel that recyclers and environmentalists are merely a flash in the pan – that soon municipalities will catch on to how expensive it is to recycle and give up on it altogether and that the industry needs to be right there to lead them into incineration and landfills.”
Art Mszanski, a Du Pont communications specialist, says, “People will focus on things related to the environment, when they have the time. When they don’t have the time, or they are in the midst of a recession, people have a hell of a lot more to worry about than plastics, which is inert and makes up a very small part of the waste stream.” (At last count, plastics packaging made up 20 percent of municipal waste, by volume.)
While Audubon’s Beyea agrees that consumer pressure on the plastics industry has relaxed, he attributes the fact to public perception that progress is being made on recycling. And, he warns, “If they stop moving forward, you are going to see exactly the same kind of anti-plastics attitudes that were common three or four years ago.”
But at least some in the industry are moving to undermine public support for plastics recycling. A recent issue of Resource Recycling magazine listed seven resin manufacturers who belong to APC as corporate funders of the Reason Foundation, whose solid waste analyst Lynn Scarlett is a leading proponent of the new anti-recycling backlash. Scarlett has made significant inroads in garnering press attention, if not the respect of most solid waste managers.
As the industry seeks to boost public skepticism of plastics recycling, there are also signs that the APC hopes to lead the public towards more widespread acceptance of plastics incineration. Du Pont’s Mszanski says, “Recycling alone is not going to solve our solid waste capacity problem,” and he continues in the same breath, “Europe thinks of plastics as … they call it white coal, because it provides such excellent fuel for |waste-to-energy’ incineration.”
Plastics packagers have been pushing their products’ “compatibility” with incinerators for years, but according to EAF Policy Analyst Lisa Collaton, “Promoting public acceptance of solid waste incineration has jumped to the top of the Council’s agenda.”
APC denies promoting incineration, except in cases where recycling is inappropriate. Yet, in an “outreach” mailing to 2,200 members of the Society for the Plastics Industry (SPI) earlier this summer, APC listed public acceptance of “energy recovery” (i.e. incineration) as a top priority of its “product stewardship” program, alongside its 25 percent recycling goal.
“Incineration is a major source of harmful air emissions and a waste of non-renewable resource, “says EAF’s Collaton. “It’s difficult to figure out why the Council would embrace a practice as fundamentally unsustainable as burning plastic as part of its |product stewardship’ campaign, unless they are hoping to promote it as an alternative to recycling.”
Spokesperson Susan Moore bridles against accusations that the American Plastics Council is promoting incineration or propaganda over substantive progress. “In its first 12 months, [the APC] will spend 30 percent more on technical infrastructure investments than its predecessor did in all three years of its existence,” says Moore.
While “not at liberty” to disclose just what this 30 percent increase translates to in real dollars, Moore is quick to rattle off a list of the key recycling efforts, which include a “model cities” program that loans equipment to communities and researches ways to improve the efficiency of plastics collection; a national database of market information accessible by an “800” number; a national database of plastics handlers and reclaimers that is updated twice a year; and grants to support new recycling technologies at the university and entrepreneurial levels.
These investments represent the largest portion of APC’s annual budget, says Moore, and that’s not even counting steps that the industry has taken on its own. One survey – commissioned by APC and conspicuously released around the same time that word spread of its $18 million ad campaign – found that resin suppliers have spent $351 million on recycling R&D, equipment and operations in the three years ending in 1992.
Thanks to these efforts, Moore claims that the industry’s 25 percent recycling goal is within reach. “Not on the ladder they’re climbing,” retorts EAF’s Resa Dimino. “It’s patently clear that plastics recycling won’t succeed unless manufacturers create a sufficient demand for the stuff by using recovered materials in their products. We’ve seen a few promising steps in this area, but the level of commitment isn’t anywhere near where it should be,” says Dimino.
In the final analysis, it all comes down to the question of finding markets for recycled materials, says Waste Management Inc. Vice President Jane Witheridge. “What we have now are laws that focus on putting recyclables out on the curb and not buying them back again,” she says. “If there is not the same focus on buying it back again – on the use of that material – then there is no point in picking it up and processing it.”
Patience, responds Du Pont’s Art Mszanski, “Aluminum, paper and glass should have great recycling programs, they’ve been around forever,” he notes. “Plastics, on the other hand, are largely a child of the second half of this century. It is going to take this industry a little while to get going.”
Unfortunately, the entrepreneurs who still make up the backbone of the plastics recycling business are running out of time. “By the time a lot of these good things happen, it will be too late for us,” says Poly-Anna Plastics’ Marty Forman. “I read an article the other day that said plastics recyclers are going out of business in America at the rate of one every week, and I’m doing my damndest not to become a part of that club.”
The Association of Post-Consumer Plastics Recyclers (APR) formed in August 1992 to help develop a unified voice, dedicated to enhancing the economic viability of postconsumer plastics recycling. While APR’s officers are typically independent plastics recyclers and entrepreneurs like Marty Forman, the new association includes representatives from a number of major resin companies that have invested in postconsumer plastics recycling in recent years, including Hoechst Celanese, Union Carbide and Occidental Chemical.
At its first meeting this fall, APR adopted an official statement promoting the use of postconsumer resins in products, including “responsible recycling rate end use goals and minimum content legislation.” This statement was especially important, notes Marty Forman, because it was unanimously approved by all those present, including three representatives from resin manufacturers.
Occidental Chemical’s Bob Elcik, who attended the meeting, won’t go so far as to support across-the-board minimum contents standards, but, he agrees, “There has to be some formal content mandate for recycling to succeed.”
Historically, plastic resin manufacturers have opposed this approach, and – at least officially – they still do. “We do not support, even in concept, minimum content standards,” says American Plastics Council’s Susan Moore. Earlier this year, the trade press reported that resin company executives had approved a policy allowing lobbyists to support minimum content standards under some conditions, yet the industry clearly prefers a voluntary, educational approach. In November, APC sent out “buy recycled” guides to members of the Society of the Plastics Industry, urging manufacturers to develop purchasing programs that can help promote markets for recycled content products.
The APC’s somewhat hands-off approach to spurring market development stands in stark contrast to its decisive opposition to citizen-led attempts to boost plastics recycling and packaging reform through government mandates. In Massachusetts, APC members contributed heavily to a $5 million campaign opposing an initiative on November’s ballot that mandated certain levels of recycling, reuse, source reduction or recycled content in packaging. (See box next page.) Widespread support for the initiative, promoted by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, was overwhelmed in the final weeks before the vote by a flood of industry spending on advertising.
The American Plastics Council is not just counting on advertising to get its message out. They have also hired six full-time staff to mobilize an army of industry activists to do battle in states like Massachusetts, where the prospects for “ill-conceived legislation and product bans” are high.
Mobilization Director Richard Swigart, who – like most of his colleagues in the APC’s Washington office – was unavailable for an interview with EA, told Plastics News last summer, “The political realities of today’s decision-making process are that the voices at the grassroots level are the ones that are heard. That’s an area where the plastics industry has a tremendous untapped resource. It is a business made up of tens of thousands of small town, hard-working people.”
Tom Tomaszek, president of North American Plastics Recycling, points out that this may be a difficult time to capture the attention of processors, molders and extruders who make plastic products. “In this economy, local plastics processors are worrying about one thing – survival,” says Tomaszek. “I don’t think they are going to be spending much time reading all kinds of reports and going to town meetings. They are going to be worrying about how they are going to restructure in order to stay in business.”
In fact, APC’s rhetoric seems designed to tap into these very fears. “Their agenda is simple,” says Poly-Anna Plastics’ Marty Forman, “Any bill that raises itself, anywhere, anytime that in any measure would diminish or restrict the use of plastics will be targeted as something that is going to take your job away as a person working for plastics.” In its literature, the council predicts ominously that plastics processing businesses, which are often family owned, are at risk. Last summer, in the first of a series of letters intended to mobilize the industry, the APC wrote, “Crippling regulation or ballot initiatives, can shut down small businesses just as surely as a ban on the products they manufacture.”
The plastics industry used this approach effectively last September, when the Wisconsin Governor’s Council on Recycling considered a recommendation to the state legislature to pass a ban on the use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in rigid containers, because it tends to contaminate the valuable PET recycling stream. Poly-Anna Plastics’ Marty Forman, who supported the proposal and also serves as chair of the governor’s council, notified representatives of the PVC industry of the hearing expecting to see the usual suspects flown in from out of town.
“Two were very likely candidates – the director of the Vinyl Institute and the recycling coordinator for Occidental Chemical,” says Forman. “But the third person was this fellow whose family owns a PVC bottle making company right here in Wisconsin. He was a young fellow, the son of the owner and not the most articulate guy in the world.” During the meeting, Forman recalls, the young man held up a Peter Pan peanut butter jar that he makes out of PVC and said that if the state encourages the abandonment of PVC, then Peter Pan would very likely shift its operation to Atlanta. While jobs might be created in Georgia, he concluded, the 30 or so people that worked at his plant right here in Wisconsin would very likely lose their jobs.
“His arguments were extremely powerful with the local legislators on our council, and the motion was tabled just like that,” says Forman. “The industry had been lobbying against the PVC ban for weeks but this guy’s testimony was the single most damaging testimony to my side of the case.”
Even as consumer pressure begins to drive the plastics packaging industry to take more responsibility for its waste stream, some environmentalists worry that the current emphasis on solid waste management may be diverting attention away. from some more fundamental environmental problems posed by plastics production.
“Many of us in state and national environmental groups have started to realize that we had been chasing the plastics recycling tiger for two years and have little to show for it,” says EAF’s Lisa Collaton. Last summer, EAF joined 18 national and regional environmental groups, in issuing an environmental challenge to the plastics industry. “We drew up the environmental challenge to the plastics industry to refocus the debate back on the real issues,” says Collaton. “It included ending the wasteful use of natural resources, reducing toxics in the workplace, designing products for efficient reuse and recycling, ending the incineration of plastics, and phasing out plastics that are too environmentally burdensome to produce, recycle or dispose of.”
This renewed focus shifts the spotlight from the waste management side of things and places it squarely on production processes, which is where it belongs, says Collaton. “We need to focus on whether products are being designed with recyclability in mind and make sure that products are incorporating the maximum recycled content possible,” says Collaton. In addition, there are serious environmental problems evident on the production end of the plastics packaging industry. A three year, multi-million dollar “life-cycle” study of packaging recently released by the Boston-based Tellus institute found that the environmental problems posed by the disposal of most plastic packaging was dwarfed by the environmental damage associated with its production.
In one EPA ranking of the 20 chemicals whose production generates the most total hazardous waste, five of the top six are chemicals are commonly used by the plastic industry. Volatile air emissions of chemicals used in plastics production pose threats to production workers and people living near plastics plants. It has been shown, for example, that people living within two miles of a polyvinyl chloride plant have an increase risk of cancer from exposure to vinyl chloride emissions. Workers in PVC plants face even greater risks. Studies have shown that PVC plant employees are 11 to 16 times more likely to develop liver cancer and four times more likely to develop brain cancer than the general population.
The industry is moving aggressively to counter environmental initiatives focusing on the environmental effects of plastic production. One such initiative on November’s ballot in Ohio would have required plastics processors and other users of 458 chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects to label their products and notify residents near their plants about the chemicals. Opponents spent $2.7 million to defeat the initiative and succeeded, at least in part, by convincing voters that the measure would end up costing workers their jobs.
But Bob Supansic, research director for the United Electrical Workers Union, which organizes workers in the plastics industry, says not to underestimate the degree to which workers are concerned about environmental problems associated with plastics production. “We encounter problems all the time with the health and safety of our workers in plastic plants,” says Supansic. “People develop skin rashes and all sort of adverse physiological reaction to the handling of materials, and the industry has been very insensitive in dealing with these problems.”
“I don’t think there is any question that environmentalists and unions can work more effectively together on these issues,” says Supansic.