In a nod to swelling antipathy, the recent Plastics Recycling Conference concluded with a "Responding to Anti-Plastics Sentiment" panel — but speakers seemed less intent on addressing public concerns than on signaling opposition to greater regulation.
The session, which came after multiple days of discussion in National Harbor, Maryland on international scrap import regulations and evolving market landscapes, largely ignored fresh revelations over expanding volumes of unprocessed foreign material across Southeast Asia.
Instead, Steve Sikra, associate director of corporate research and development at Procter & Gamble, devoted the bulk of his time to promoting the recently-established Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) — an industry-led coalition committed to pledging $1.5 billion over the next five years toward combating plastic waste.
Unmentioned in his presentation was AEPW signatories' hefty financial stake in ramped-up global plastic production over the next decade-plus: leading members include Shell — currently constructing a multibillion-dollar plastics production complex in Pennsylvania — and ExxonMobil, which is set to increase polyethylene production at its Mont Belvieu, Texas plant to more than 2.5 million tons per year with the addition of two new production lines.
Sikra was quick to criticize plastic bans, framing them as anathema to innovation. Kara Pochiro, vice president of communications & public affairs at the Association of Plastic Recyclers, echoed Sikra's preference for industry-driven solutions, asserting that the plastics industry has "faced many issues for many years, and we always eventually manage to develop technologies to address those issues."
More Recycling CEO Nina Butler alleged that some existing bans "have had a lot of unintended consequences" — referring, presumably, to the possibility of pushing consumers toward single-use products with even higher GHG footprints — while Priyanka Bakaya, CEO and founder of Renewlogy, dismissed bans as "over-simplistic."
The panelists were equally resistant to the prospect of extended producer responsibility (EPR).
"I don't think optimal EPR currently exists," said Butler, alluding once again to the "unintended consequences" that might spring from government regulation. Instead, she suggested, "we need an American version driven by the free market, better transparency, better feedback loops, and managed by the industry."
Sikra took the opportunity to tout the virtues of individual responsibility, calling on "each one of us to look at the litter we produce."
"If we walk by litter on the street, shouldn't we pick it up?" he asked audience members. "Shouldn't we encourage our kids to do so?"
"When we think of EPR, let's focus on that last word: responsibility," Sikra continued. "All companies need to take some responsibility for their products. The difference between EPR and responsibility is one is mandated, and one is not. If our systems are working efficiently, why not make it voluntary?"
A question raising the possibility of industry-funded domestic recycling infrastructure was met with silence, broken by Butler's third unelaborated reference to "unintended consequences."
Ultimately, the sum of the panel was encapsulated in one brief exchange toward the end of the Q&A session.
"Someone from the audience wants to know why we didn't include any critics of the industry on this panel," said moderator Ted Siegler, a DSM Environmental Services principal, glancing down at his large stack of attendee question cards.
The speakers laughed, and moved on.