مرکزی صفحہ Makromolekulare Chemie Macromolecular Symposia A perspective of the plastics waste issue in the United States
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Makromol. Chem., Macrornol. Symp. 57,l-13 (1992) 1 A PERSPECTIVE OF THE PLASTICS WASTE ISSUE IN THE UNITED STqTES Ronald Liesemer, Vice President Technology Council for Solid Waste Solutions Plastics recycling in the United States is now at the stage where issues that transcend science and technology often impact solutions to the solid waste problem. Public opinion and legislation will continue to be governed by factors beyond the control of the scientific community. For the past three years, the Council for Solid Waste Solutions has attempted to diffuse the myths that have become barriers to effective solid waste management in the U.S. Through a combination of communication, technical and government affairs programs CS WS has succeeded in reversing opinion leaders views on plastics in the waste stream and is beginning to do the same with public opinion. Buenos Dias. Me llamo Ron Liesemer. Unfortunately, that is the extent of my Spanish. I could continue in French, but considering that I left Geneva in 1984, even the French speaking people would have trouble understanding me. So, I'll speak in English. While living in Europe I got the sense that Americans are the worst at languages. A gentleman from Britain once told me that Americans don't even speak English correctly! With that in mind, I am Vice President of Technology for the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, an organization that has been challenged to look well beyond initial assessments of its limitations. The Council is the American plastics industry's task force dedicated to meeting the challenges associated with plastics and municipal solid waste. This morning I will be addressing the evolution of plastics recycling in the United States and how issues that transcend science and technology have often impacted the solutions to the solid waste issue. For scientists like myself, it was disturbing to see how the American public was responding to the issue of plastics in the waste stream. It was difficult to watch the monster of human hysteria govern; the waste debate rather than an empirical understanding of how science works. Nevertheless, as the fantasy writer Tolkien wrote, "It doesn't do to ignore a live dragon if you live near him." And in the plastics industry's case, that live dragon was public opinion. 0 1992 Hiithig & Wepf Verlag, Base1 CCC 02.58-03221926 04.00 2 In 1988, when the Council for Solid Waste Solutions was formed, we faced some very tough political and consumer opposition to the very existence of plastics. The situation reminds me of the story of two battleships assigned to a training squadron. They had been at sea for several days, and the weather was terrible. One night the visibility was poor with patchy fog, so the captain remained on the bridge. Shortly after dark, the lookout on the bridge reported, "Light, bearing on the starboard bow." It looked like a collision course. The captain called to the signalman, "Signal that ship: We are on a collision course, advise you to change course 20 degrees" Back came the signal, "Advisable for you to change course 20 degrees." The captain said, "Send, I"m the captain of a battleship. Change course 20 degrees." Back came the reply, "I'm a seaman second class -- manning a lighthouse. " The battleship changed course! That illustrates that ego and a history of success do not win every discussion And the plastics industry after years of success, found themselves against an immovable object -- public opinion. Let me set the stage for the uphill battle that we encountered. Until quite recently durability and versatility of plastics were selling points to the American consumer and plastics offered a real market ad\ antage to any business choosing it as a material. However, times changed and they changed rapidly Today our industry has become, in some ways, a victim of its own success and its relative youth. The era no longer exists where plastics' strength, adaptability, convenience, safety and relatively low cost made us the up-and-comers of American business. As our products became incorporated into a constantly-expanding universe of applications we became increasingly visible in the marketplace. And increasingly visible in the waste stream at a time when garbage became big news. Many American communities were confronted with closing landfills and higher tipping fees, and they began to take a closer look at what they threw away. What did they see? 3 They saw plastics. They saw plastics largely due to their explosive growth and popularity during the 1970's and 1980's. By the late 1980's, plastics were becoming the material that the public loved to use, but loved to hate. It was in the late 1980's that the news media began to speak of the United States on the verge of drowning in its own garbage. There were news shows about garbage barges wandering the seas in search of a final resting place. Some news programs were arranging live debates between plastics industry executives and, in some cases, grade school children who wanted to ban various plastics from their communities. We called the media tactic of having schoolchildren debate industry officials as the Godzilla versus Bambi strategy. And you can rest assured that Bambi always won. Now you can excuse small children for being naive - a nice way of saying flatout wrong -but children were not the only ones circulating bad information. We were also being assaulted on the legislative front by politicians who contended that if only plastics were banned from the waste stream, our landfills could almost last forever. As I'm sure you can appreciate, we needed to debunk these myths and do it urgently. The Council was created by companies who recognized that the role of plastics in the solid waste problem -- and its solution -- had to be answered if our industry was going to continue to grow, let alone survive. The scenario that I have painted is, on the surface, the issue of where to put our garbage yet, beneath the surface, lies an even greater dilemma establishing a materials management policy that redistributes the burden of responsibility more evenly on the shoulders of industry, government, consumers and environmental activists alike. As Thoreau has said, "For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root." Have you noticed that some environmental activists never seem to be satisfied. That is because they are using the solid waste issue to accomplish other goals, e.g., materials management policy or social engineering. To accomplish this redistribution of responsibility, let's start at the foundation of the issue. The image of plastics had been impacted by the public's perception that plastics are bad for the environment. There were a few reasons for this perception, one of the most important being that plastics were not biodegradable. Now we scientists know that 4 biodegradability is not a magical solid waste solution, but the consumer didn’t know that. And consumers were not helped to understand this issue by television ads showing trash disappearing instantly if we would only buy one company’s products. People wanted garbage that would disappear all by itself and, frankly, who could blame them. I wish I had a credit card with a balance that disappeared all by itself. In a survey taken early last year, 65 percent of the American public believed that plastic products were the single most important cause of the waste disposal problem. And 68 percent of the public believed that the environmental risks and waste disposal difficulties they associated with plastic products outweighed the benefits plastics bring to the marketplace - convenience, safety, durability and low cost. Consumers who believed plastic products were an environmental threat obviously jeopardize the sales of a variety of plastic items. Public officials at every level of government began entering the fray armed with bans, taxes and restrictions aimed at reducing the use of plastics because they believed they were an environmental problem. And, of course, they wanted to show their constituents that they were aggressively addressing the solid waste problem. With consumers, the news media, environmentalists and legislators against us, the Council was forced to ask itself, can the plastics industry survive this waste management crisis? The answer was and is yes! After investing 25 years of my life in this industry, I have confidence that we can win any challenge we take seriously. In the three years since it was formed, the Council has clearly demonstrated that a concerted and coordinated effort by the plastics industry can respond to these concerns. We responded by dividing the Council into three sectors: Communications, Government Affairs and Technical. First the communications challenge. For years a lot of public misperceptions about plastics were allowed to go more or less unchallenged. 5 The Council devoted significant resources to overcome these myths, now enshrined as pop-culture "fact." One of those myths I mentioned earlier -- the notion that garbage can be made to simply disappear. But we also recognize that to view the plastics industry's current predicament as a public relations problem alone would be a mistake. We can only change public opinion about plastics if we can demonstrate concrete progress on environmental issues. In the United States, the era of good intentions has given way to the era of tangible progress. In my country, consumers are saying "show me" and "prove it" to industry claims of environmental compatibility. That's why plastics recycling is a top priority. It gives us the opportunity to communicate plastics environmental compatability directly to the consumer. The Council's research shows that fully 88 percent of the American people support mandatory recycling as the solution to the garbage problem. They are demanding recyclable products and products made with recycled materials. And they will not support alternative disposal options - waste-to-energy incineration and landfilling - until they are convinced that the maximum level of recycling has been achieved. And unless the public perceptions about plastics are changed, then scientists, like yourselves, will not be permitted to create new materials because the markets simply will not exist. For example, a recent study that queried nearly 750 households on their recycling habits revealed some very interesting attitudes. Sixty-five percent said the recyclability of a package either sometimes or frequently affected their decision to choose one product over another. It's not enough just to tell consumers that a material is recyclable. If you can't show them it's recycled, you're just blowing hot air. The Council depends on knowing what consumers think, in order to develop realistic solutions that address plastics in the waste stream. The most effective way to achieve a 180 degree reversal in consumers' collective attitude towards plastic, is by providing them with the means to toss their plastics in a recycling bin. 6 For example, this theory was proven in Minneapolis, Minnesota, part of the model cities program sponsored by the Council. Ninety percent of the residents participating in plastics recycling in that city now can think of something they like about plastics recycling, which reflects broadly on the material. You have to live through the emotions to see the change in opinions. One night I had dinner with half of the Minneapolis City Council, and that dinner was very unpleasant -- very confrontational. Nevertheless, we explained our plan. The next day after my formal presentation of our recycling plan to the City Council, we received unsolicited testimonials. Council members talked about the benefits of plastics, and now they felt comfortable about buying and using them. The most frequently mentioned likes are: It cleans up and helps the environment, It relieves the crowding in landfills, and Plastics aren't being wasted by us throwing them away. These are the same people who used to have nothing positive to say about plastics. For many people, plastics recycling (and perhaps recycling in general) is considered a moral issue - a debt they owe to society and their grandchildren. And most imuortantlL recycling makes them feel good - it relieves their guilt. We've also learned that the more consumers are in tune with recycling, the more realistic they are about how much should and can be recycled. That is very important. We asked two groups: What recycling rate should be achieved before other options (such as incineration and landfilling) are acceptable? Those not recycling said 50 to 70 percent needs to be recycled The group that recycles said 25 to 40 percent should be recycled. It is all put in to perspective once people directly participate in plastics recycling. Next on the legislative front, in the area of government relations, the opinion towards plastics has made some progress. 7 In 1989, the Council's public opinion surveys indicated that opinion leaders were no better informed than the general public. Almost half held plastics to blame as the single largest cause of the waste disposal problem A majority held a negative view of the plastics industry as a result. And when these decision makers felt political pressure to act on the waste issue, plastics were their target of choice. Let's face it, there was no political downside rush. No price to pay for bashing plastics. A rash of anti-plastics regulations - many focused specifically on polystyrene - were proposed at the state and local levels in the late 1980s. In 1989 alone, 66 anti-polystyrene proposals were introduced in state legislatures. But by year's end, only six passed. Most were acceptable to - some even supported by - our industry. Why? Because the plastics industry - in part under the banner of the Council for Solid Waste Solutions - opted to demonstrate to decision makers that public perception was not reality. We were able to get the legislation changed. Recycling is the one common link between what the public perceives to be and what actually is a solution to the waste management puzzle. By emphasizing recycling, we were able to satisfy the public's demand for action without pandering to their misperceptions. And we made it more difficult for decision makers to justify anti-plastics measures. Today, after a lot of hard work, you can see a real split between opinion leaders and the general public when it comes to understanding the true role of plastics in the waste stream. Keep in mind that Opinion Leaders were our target audience. We did not have the money to target the general public. The percentage of opinion leaders believing plastics are the single most important cause of the solid waste problem has fallen from 49 percent to 32 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of the public holding this view has held steady. That shows that our messages are good, and that given the resources, we could change the opinions of the general public. What's more, a majority of opinion leaders recognize that the plastics industry has made a substantial commitment to producing recyclable products - 52 percent versus 36 percent a year ago. Currently the legislative picture across the United States has kept pace with the changing opinion of our legislators. The support for bans on plastic 8 products has declined dramatically. In virtually all cases, we have been able to change ban legislation to recycling legislation. Only a few states still have legislation pending that would put an outright ban on plastics. Our research has identified a direct link between this decline and the industry's commitment to recycling. There are only few states that are seriously still considering degradability legislation to make the problem of plastics just disappear. At the state level the trend is toward establishing mandates. Mandates are measures that dictate certain products must meet stringent standards for reusability, recycling rate or recycled content - or else face punitive measures. To date 30 states have established recycling rate goals. In six of these states the goals are actually mandates. Other states are expected to follow suit. California and Wisconsin also have mandated recycled content for certain types of packaging. When I moved to Europe in 1980, I was told over and over that Europe is complicated -- many different countries, currencies, languages, cultures, etc. The United States by contrast was one country, one currency, and one language. Well, I'm here to tell you that Mississippi is not Massachusetts -- in fact western Massachusetts is not eastern Massachusetts. The variety of legislation that we face from the states has parallels with the countries of Europe. And that is a good reason to cooperate, and take a global view of the issues. Congress has demonstrated a similar willingness to set aggressive goals for industry in the Clean Air Act of 1990. The emissions and fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles in that legislation are significantly out in front of existing technology, and the automotive industry will have to work hard to catch up. It's very likely that the plastics industry could be facing a similar situation. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act - the major piece of federal solid waste legislation - is due for reauthorization. Although we don't expect to see reauthorization pass this Congress, it is most certainly looming on the horizon. Moreover, separate recycling-specific legislation may well pass this year. When the Council was initially formed, it was in response to concerns about the environment. And to improve public understanding about plastics in the waste stream. 9 But in order to accomplish this we had to demonstrate a commitment to developing long-term solutions of plastics' role in the waste stream. And we implemented technical programs that proved how it could be done With the Council's technical programs we have focused on making sure that plastics play a positive role in the EPA's four-step waste management hierarchy. A system that integrates source reduction, recycling and waste-toenergy incineration to reduce the amount of waste to be landfilled. When we began our uphill climb, as I stated earlier, making plastics just disappear or "the degradability issue" was at the forefront of everyone's minds - the public and the legislators. The issue has now evolved to the next level - where the consumer and the politician, both, are demanding recycling. The Council has developed a host of programs and research projects that will satisfy the publics' mandate for recycling. The mandate is clear, and the Council and its member companies are now working to bring plastics recycling to the majority of Americans by 1995. On March 28, of this year, we told the world just how we're going to do it. We announced the Blueprint for Plastics Recycling, a market-driven action plan that will enable us to help recycle 25 percent of all plastic bottles and containers by 1995. The Blueprint is designed to promote the implementation of efficient methods and technology at each stage in the recycling system. Collection, handling, reclaiming and end-use. These are the elements necessary for plastics recycling to work, and the Blueprint addresses the specific challenges present at each one. Our first priority is to take the elements of the infrastructure that are already working and expand them exponentially. To bring the buyers and sellers of recyclable plastics together, we've fed the results of our nationwide surveys of handlers and reclaimers into computer databases. Both databases can now be accessed via the Council's 1-800 number. We're also giving communities the benefit of our research thruugh a comprehensive manual guiding recycling coordinators through the planning, design apd implementation of a plastics recycling program. 10 We know how to design a plastics recycling program to maximize success, and it's all in the book. We can also help communities plan their programs with the help of our computerized cost-projection program. The Blueprint also concentrates on getting promising recycling technology off of the drafting table and into operation. In collection, for example, our initial study of truck-mounted plastics compactors told us that no one machine did the job perfectly in all situations. So we developed a list of recommended technical specifications. And already several new compactor models have been introduced meeting many of these specifications. On-going technical research is also being focused on some promising plastics sorting equipment that we will help make commercially available. Sorting is a key issue in plastics recycling because there are, indeed six resins that make up the vast majority of plastics packaging. Each type of plastic has certain properties that make it suitable for specific applications. In recycling, the more of those properties retained by the recycled plastic, the more valuable it is. Sorting by resin types before reclamation is therefore highly desirable. Current municipal collection programs tend to focus on a limited range of items, such as aluminum cans, glass bottles and polyethylene terephthalate soft drink bottles. This limits the amount of sorting that has to be done either during collection or by a handler - an intermediate processor linking collection programs and reclaimers. But the Council's recycling goals call for more. The Council is now in the midst of a wide-ranging research effort to develop automated plastics sorting technology. That could increase the number of resin types that can be cost-effectively collected and prepared for recycling. And it could bring tremendous gains in efficiency over manual labor. However, we know already that there will not be any one be-all, end-all sorting system. Collection programs vary widely from community to community. The variables include the types of materials collected, the preparation required of the consumer and the type of collection equipment employed. These factors have an impact on the form in which recyclables are delivered for sorting and, therefore, the type of sorting equipment that would be most effective. The Council has taken its sorting research and put it to work through our Model Cities program. Let me tell you about our work in Hennepin County, Minnesota, for example. Hennepin County is home to one quarter of the state's population, including the City of Minneapolis, and was facing a waste disposal dilemma. The City of Minneapolis opted for the quick-fix, feel-good solution and passed a ban on plastics food packaging. But the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners took a different approach. They wanted to have all the facts before they decided on their waste management future. So Hennepin County came to us to find out how the plastics industry could help. The Council offered to fund three pilot plastics recycling projects to lay the foundation for a county-wide program. Hennepin County, with its mix of city and suburbs, presented an opportunity to explore how a county-wide program could be designed to address the variety of population densities. This information would be invaluable to the Council in advising similar areas across the country. Pilot projects based in several small communities and in the mid-sized city of Minnetonka were established. But to get the kind of information we really wanted, we needed a third pilot in a large city. 12 So the Council returned to Minneapolis and made sure the City Council was aware of the county's desire to pursue plastics recycling. The city eventually agreed to delay the implementation of its ban for twelve months during the plastics collection pilot phase. As a result, rather than losing Minneapolis as a market for plastic products, we have helped make it a model plastics recycling community. We met the needs of the public while satisfying our own needs As we have begun to see, the nineties are, indeed, the decade of environmental progress and, as I said earlier, environmental compatibility is being perceived as an extension of product performance. We must continually be prepared to face this challenge not only on the short term but as a part of doing business. A fair amount of skepticism clearly remains on the part of the environmental community towards our good intentions but through the Council's efforts to address the issue of plastics recycling we have made considerable progress. When we entered our professions in the plastics industry, the main focus was on using our skills to develop superior products and materials that solved consumer and industrial problems and met the demands of our customers. The plastics industry has proven its ability to meet these demands for firstrate product performance. Now we're facing a new set of demands. We must now channel our scientific prowess in helping to fulfil the demands associated with disposing of our products after their initial use. This will apply not only to packaging issues, but to durable goods as well. Whether industry likes it or not, the public and the opinion leaders that I mentioned earlier view it as our responsibility to come up with the solutions to environmental problems posed by our products. Businesses will have to invest more in long-term environmental solutions than was initially planned. Businesses must invest in clean air and clean water and they view that as a cost of doing business. They must view the solid waste issue in the same terms -- a cost of doing business. We've got to show some progress if we want government to accept us as partners in finding solutions. Opinion leaders are increasingly looking to our industry to advance the technology of source reduction. "Make more out of less," I'm often told. 13 Plastics engineers can continue to advance plastics recycling by bringing more and more recycled resins into the manufacturing process. Scientists must be more involved in the political process or politicians will continue to try and make scientific decisions. Chemists must come out of the lab, teachers out of the classroom and businessmen out of their offices to talk to the public and legislators in every forum available. I admit that its hard for many of us to go beyond the initial scientific mandates of our training. Nevertheless, we must accept that we'll have to deal with a few dragons before we, once and for all, meet the solid waste challenge. We must be involved in the political process to ensure that our voices are heard, and our votes counted. Either we will act on situations and opportunities, or we will be acted upon. Thank you.