Circularity may be tough sell to US plastics industry

Jan. 15, 2020

It seemed strange to kick off NPE 2021 during a press conference at the K 2019 trade show in Germany, but the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) did just that and drew a good deal of interest from a room full of the world’s trade journalists.

The theme for the K show was the circular economy, a European Union initiative first proposed in 2015 and supported by manufacturing organizations in Germany and elsewhere. The VDMA, which represents German plastics machinery makers and sponsors the K show, is a vigorous supporter and has taken the lead in pushing the circular economy.

Susan Krys, VP for trade shows and marketing at PLASTICS, said “circularity” will be the defining feature of NPE 2021.

I applaud that, but I think it is going to be a tougher sell to the North American plastics industry.

Circularity for the plastics industry means that every plastic product must have a place to go that preserves its value, rather than going to the landfill or haphazardly into the environment. Circularity has a lot of components, but the results are preserving resources, protecting the environment, making companies more competitive and creating jobs and new business opportunities.  

The German government passed a law in 1991 that required manufacturers to take care of the recycling or disposal of any packaging material they sell. That led to the Green Dot collection program familiar to everyone who lives in Europe.

We are struggling in this country to put it all together — collecting, sorting, processing and reusing plastic that has reached the end of its first life. The Europeans have not achieved a perfect system, but they have a big head start on the rest of the world.

I had an opportunity to visit more than 60 machinery and equipment companies during K 2019 and nearly every one of them intelligently defined what they saw as their role in the circular economy. Some were clearly out of their comfort zones, but said they were willing to invest in circularity.

Bringing that same zeal to NPE exhibitors will be difficult, but I am glad PLASTICS is taking on the challenge.

It won’t be enough to increase the number of companies locating in the recycling and sustainability zones. Those companies already get it. The hundreds and hundreds of other exhibiting companies need to incorporate circularity into their thought processes, exhibits and business models.

Public opinion on the value and/or dangers of plastics is evolving at breathtaking speed. It is hard to say today if plasticphobia will be smothering the industry when NPE 2021 opens on May 17 in Orlando, Fla. Will there be anti-plastics pickets in front of the Orange County Convention Center? Will news media be asking exhibitors what they are doing about plastic pollution?

In Europe, the machinery makers have taken a lead on pushing circular economy principles. They have not waited on materials suppliers, which would be easy to do. I hope processing machinery and auxiliary equipment manufacturers in this country follow their example.

Circularity gives the plastics industry a good story to tell. These efforts can show how the industry is taking responsibility for the plastic and plastic products it creates.

We need that story.

Buying survey good news for everyone

The Plastics Machinery Magazine equipment investment survey (Page 7) shows significant optimism among processors for this year. Some 95 percent of survey respondents plan to maintain or increase the amount they spend on new equipment this year compared to last year.

The optimism comes from new programs that are already booked or that are expected to be finalized soon.

Linda Campbell, VP of sales for Entek, told Managing Editor Lynne Sherwin, “We’re seeing lots happening with packaging, medical, sheet suppliers and some masterbatch folks.” Entek makes twin-screw extruders.

I am a glass-half-full sort of guy, and I am excited about the prospects for this year. I don’t worry about trade policy, tariffs or bag bans, or the possibility of the auto industry in North America slowing down as it has in some parts of Europe. As long as consumer spending remains at high levels, the plastics industry will be just fine.

Thanks to everyone who took time to complete the survey.

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.