Is Plastic the new Tobacco?

Picture the scene: You introduce yourself at a party. “Hi, I’m Caroline, 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 we on the way to being seen as pariahs in the same way that 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. My role depends on the continued success of that industry.

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 3 reasons why plastic isn’t the new tobacco:

1. Corporate Attitudes

In the past, tobacco companies have spent millions trying to disseminate ‘fake news’ (topical) 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.

Plastics companies are joining in and leading the conversation, as well as talking about how they’re trying to combat it.

That’s on the back of a huge wave of public support which has seen global mega brands join 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 1 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 – no one more so than the companies who manufacture the stuff.

2. Politics

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 that single use plastics will be reduced.

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 are able to 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.

Unsurprisingly, plans were announced in 2018 for them to roll something similar out too.

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.

3. Technology

It’s estimated that over 200,000 barrels of oil (also not the most environmentally friendly resource) are used to make plastic packaging for the United States alone 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 which will be at least carbon neutral through production and usage.

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 and mean we never have to endure those awkward, party-stopping introductions.

What do you think? Is the industry doing enough? Are your company doing something particularly exciting? Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments!

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