Commentary: Is time running out for the plastics industry?

June 10, 2021
Environmental pressures and legislation make the future of plastics uncertain, and the industry needs to take action now.

By Ron Shinn

I used to think that the plastics industry is too big to fail. Or, to put it another way, what could replace plastics?

But now I am not so sure.

Negative headlines about the environmental hazards of plastics seem to come almost every day. It’s the proverbial runaway freight train.

We all agree that plastic plays a critical role in public health (see our medical stories this month), the food supply, construction, transportation — just about every facet of modern life. Even single-use plastics, which are the focus of many anti-plastics activists, have a place.

The Canadian government has labeled plastics as toxic, which could lead to bans on some plastic products. The U.S.-based Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) said such a move would harm cross-border trade and jobs in the U.S. and Canada, and could hurt efforts to improve recycling.

Lux Research Inc., based in Boston, published a report that says the future of plastics is in doubt. It points out that anti-plastic consumer sentiment is growing; anti-plastic regulation is increasing globally; and Lux research director Anthony Schiavo said that if global plastics recycling triples, in 2030 some 15 percent of plastics numbered 1 to 6 will be environmentally sustainable. Chemical companies will face stagnating demand for oil-derived plastics and will need to invest in recycling to find growth in the plastics business.

I believe there could even come a tipping point where chemical companies rethink their involvement in plastics altogether. Researchers could someday find a more sustainable and economical base for plastics than petrochemicals and the ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical companies of the world could decide that producing plastics is not worth the return. An Australian study declared ExxonMobil to be the biggest single-use plastic polluter in the world, and Dow was second. Large public companies do not like that sort of publicity.

A big question is the pace of new local regulations banning or attempting to deter the use of plastics. The pace is certainly picking up, and it is impossible to predict what will happen in the rest of this decade.

I am very concerned that we have run out of time to develop and fine-tune recycling technologies and boost recycling rates to the point that skeptics can see progress to a cleaner environment.

The low price of virgin resin continues to keep recycled material out of many products. Plastics recycling is a tough business.

The Lux report, titled “The Sustainable Plastics Roadmap: Recycling, Bioplastics, and Alternatives — Regional Outlook,” can be found at It looks at four scenarios, including one that assumes different levels of bans on grocery bags, PS packaging and PET bottles; low adoption of just 7 percent of alternatives to PET bottles; and improvements to the recycling infrastructure. This scenario, which seems realistic, nets only modest gains in plastics’ sustainability.

I don’t want to denigrate the recycling efforts already underway, or the leadership on recycling of PLASTICS, the American Chemical Council (ACC) or countless others. But after being named the world’s worst single-use polluter, ExxonMobil told The New York Times it is increasing the efficacy of recycling and supporting improvements in plastic waste recovery. Dow has since joined with LyondellBasell and Nova Chemicals Corp. to donate a combined $25 million to a fund to promote recycling projects.

That’s not enough. Neither are knee-jerk reactions from PLASTICS and the ACC every time someone in Washington utters an anti-plastics statement.

The circular economy, an idea to boost sustainability that is popular with European manufacturers and politicians, might turn out to be worthwhile. But it is not yet catching on widely and will take years to have an impact. That might be years the plastics industry does not have.

There needs to be strong leadership to organize plastics stakeholders in a single effort to solve the environmental damage plastics has caused. I don’t see that leadership yet.

In the meantime, machinery builders, resin makers, processors, OEMs and recyclers — all the stakeholders — need to think outside the box about making their businesses as sustainable as possible and demanding their suppliers do the same. Every one of us needs to push our local and national lawmakers to fund recycling research.

Do you have a big-picture idea about changing the terrible perception people have about plastics? Should resin makers be responsible for cleaning up discarded plastic products? Should plastic be limited by law to only critical products? Should the federal government take over plastics recycling? Should a non-governmental organization such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation lead the charge?

PMM would like to hear from you. You can email me directly at the address below and we may publish your ideas. 

Ron Shinn, editor 

[email protected]  

About the Author

Ron Shinn | Editor

Editor Ron Shinn is a co-founder of Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing and has been covering the plastics industry for more than 35 years. He leads the editorial team, directs coverage and sets the editorial calendar. He also writes features, including the Talking Points column and On the Factory Floor, and covers recycling and sustainability for PMM and Plastics Recycling.