Friday, August 15th, 2014

Turning the Tide on the Plastics Conversation

by Kim Holmes, SPI, Director, Recycling and Diversion

Many of the stories featured in the 2014springmagazine-coverspring 2014 issue of The SPI Magazine address the topic of plastics in the marine environment, which is undoubtedly an important issue for the industry. Marine debris stories are regularly in the news and are often the focus of recent scientific research. It is an issue that the industry must respond to swiftly and in a meaningful way.

Like marine debris issues, many of the conversations the plastics industry has with regulators and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are in response to a particular problem or challenge that has arisen. The industry will usually enter the conversation from a position of necessity, which often results in being put into a defensive position—not an easy place to be. Given the opportunity, most would like to be able to reverse the dynamic of these conversations, which would allow them the opportunity and ability to get out a more positive message. There are certainly opportunities for the plastics industry to begin the conversation. The question becomes “what would the direction of this conversation look like?”

Changing the dynamic of these conversations means the plastics industry has to make the first move, giving the public information out about the benefits of plastics, not just defending ourselves from the potential problems. Plastics present many advantages in our lives and in the environment. In fact, the more plastics are measured against other materials, the clearer their sustainability advantages become.

Light weight, less energy intensive manufacturing and production processes, minimal effluents in production, durability and expanded product life span and potential for recovery and recyclability are all areas in which plastics measure up favorably. In addition to these inherent advantages, the plastics industry is also adopting initiatives which aim to further reduce its environmental impact, protect workers and enhance the communities in which it does business. Based on what we see from our members, the industry has already expressed a true commitment to embracing the three core values of sustainability: people, planet and profit—commonly known as triple-bottom line.

As sustainability is becoming an increasingly important factor in the decision-making process of consumers and organizations throughout the supply chain, the plastics industry is finding itself in a position to shape a new conversation. Some large companies such as brand owners are starting to leverage the information in their corporate sustainability reports (CSRs) to demonstrate leadership, which in turn improves brand perception and strengthens brand loyalty.

As we enter the arena of environmental reporting, it is important to remember the distinction between promoting “green” efforts and simply “green washing.” Talking about being green becomes green washing when the environmental benefits are overstated or information that could change the overall environmental benefit of your product is intentionally omitted. This pitfall is one that many companies have been accused of over the years. The damage that can be done when a company is suspected of green washing can far outweigh the incremental positive gains from any beneficial claims. While everyone wants to showcase the benefits of a product, the information must also be accurate. This means that data collection has to be done in a methodical and transparent way, while using standard terms and definitions that are generally accepted by industry.

Last year, SPI conducted the first-ever sustainability benchmark survey of its members. In this first iteration, the survey focused mainly on environmental aspects of sustainability and served as a cursory view of our members’ thoughts about integrating sustainability practices into their business. This year, we have assembled a cross-council and cross-committee workgroup to develop a new sustainability benchmarking tool to measure all aspects of sustainability. The criteria of the tool are also more closely aligned with the corporate sustainable reporting framework offered by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). The tool will yield information on many of the same core areas that other large companies and industries use for measuring sustainability.

With the findings of the survey, SPI will be able to evaluate opportunities to further help our members integrate sustainable goals and practices into operations. Of equal importance, the tool will equip the industry with necessary data to highlight many of the positive activities happening in the plastics industry, allowing us to begin our own conversations about the benefits of the material and the industry. Participating companies can also use these findings to identify opportunity areas and set new goals around environmental and social stewardship. And for the many small- and medium-sized companies that may not have implemented sustainability benchmarking, participation in this survey will help organize the information that customers seek from suppliers.

While many large companies have already found value in publicly reporting their sustainability efforts, the overall perception of plastics as a material will benefit greatly if we as an industry can communicate our collective efforts. The participation of SPI members from across the entire supply chain is critical for this to be accomplished. Without it, the information being publicly reported will lack both integrity and accuracy.

Unfortunately, there is a reality where the negative conversations about plastics and the plastics industry will never fully die because they are rooted in emotion rather than science. However, we can bring a balance to the conversations with data-driven information about the benefits of our products and industry. This survey will be deployed in the first quarter of 2015 and we ask all members of the plastics supply chain to participate. Can we begin to turn the tide on the plastics conversation in 2014? Through our sustainability benchmarking efforts, the answer is a resounding yes. Together we can construct a message and take ownership of that conversation, but only with the help of everyone in the industry.

Leave a Comment