The Good, Bad & Ugly Perceptions About Plastics

3Rs Chasing Arrows
Most people are NOT as conflicted about glass, aluminum and paper, in quite the ways they are generally very conflicted, about the pervasive presence of plastics in modern life. We depend upon plastics to support our family, and we LOVE LEED, and we are not the norm, at least for the plastics industry. Actually, we are a bit out of the box, while being every bit as professionally oriented as any good business should be. We fall through a lot of cracks and for good reason.

Plastics gets bashed a lot. I even bash it a bit here. For example, the McDs coffee cup blog. Or the Green Globes fiasco blog. We aren’t aligned with “big” plastics, etc; but we are grateful that plastics help support our family. We are supported because we extend the life of natural resources that have already been extracted by recycling them into quality new materials for the building construction industry. We were always environmentalists but our entry into the recycling business sphere was timely, and for that we are grateful; because in our earliest boot-strap days, we got a lot of free publicity simply because we were doing a positive thing.

I do agree with one commenter on a blog by Paula Melton, managing editor at BuildingGreen Inc about the current LEED/Green Globes controversies on, when he states – “Supporters of green building, no matter their rating system of choice, should work together. After all, the next step by our erstwhile politicians will be to ban all green building rating systems!” We didn’t create LEED but we definitely have made it through one of the toughest economic cycles since the Great Depression, thanks to meeting specs and providing points to users of our material, in conjunction with their LEED certification attempts.

Actually, I am a middle-way kind of person. I know that most people are not truly evil and any business or corporation requires human inputs. And I think most people do the best that they can most of the time and sometimes they do really bad things in their own self-interest or because of some extreme stress or need. We all have to apply a lot of discernment and consider possible agendas with information that inundates us daily in our modern lives now.

Recycle Plastic Bags
Without a doubt plastic bags, such as one gets when shopping, and plastic bottles such as water and soft drinks are packaged in, represent challenges for our modern society. It is precisely because we recognize that, that we are grateful to be one “solution” to a huge issue. Not the whole solution and not the only solution by any means. One concern about plastics is that they come from petroleum production and there are not infinite sources of that resource. It took a very long time to create what oil we have and we are using it at a much faster rate than it could ever be realistically replenished. It doesn’t take a genius to realize there is some point when the resource may be less available. One bright spot is the development of plant based, biodegradable plastics. Yay !!

Recently, Plastics News (Nov 25, 2013 issue) highlighted the Global Plastics Summit. The Director of Recycling and Diversion at the Society of the Plastics Industry, Kim Holmes, was a balanced presenter at that event which took place in Chicago Nov 4-6, 2013. Only 3 slides into her presentation, she was acknowledging the “ugly” side of plastics. Pictures of plastic littering a beach, plastic bags caught in trees, plastics in a trash can, greeted attendees. I get it, just recently on Thanksgiving, someone’s bright yellow plastic shopping bag was decorating our dirt road (no, it was NOT our plastic bag carelessly allowed to blow away !!!)

Without a doubt, plastics suffers from a public perception problem when it comes to sustainability and happy acceptance. There is simply a lot of media driven attention on all the bad images, similar to what I just shared as well. Plastics have become a symbol representing the whole “throwaway society” mentality that many of us recognize is not sustainable. Wall-E anyone ? UCLA professor Maite Zubiaurre has considered the effects of such portrayals. “In ‘WALL-E’, you have an opportunity to enjoy a landscape that you would in reality never enjoy. It’s the hygienic experience of terror and dirt. It’s like the fun of playing with dirt without the danger.” I understood the seriousness behind the fun of Wall-E. Prof Zubiaurre contrasts the Hollywood version with a reality version and challenges her students to dive deeper.

Contrasting Images

Contrasting Images

It is also true, from our own limited experience as recyclers, that if plastics are properly managed at the end of their original life cycle, they offer to society benefits similar to what they offer our own business. There are a whole bunch of sustainable benefits, longevity being one of them. Bluebird houses that we made over 20 years ago of recycled plastic are still usable, whereas wooden bluebird houses that we put up only a decade or less ago are totally deteriorated.

Kim Holmes, in her recent presentation pointed out that – “Scrap plastics, when they are reprocessed, become an important input for the manufacturing sector”, and even if they can’t be mechanically recycled, they may still represent an opportunity for “energy” recovery. All of this without extracting a single new barrel of oil.

I have found, as Kim Holmes also notes – People “feel kind of good about their ability to recycle” (glass, aluminum and paper). “It’s a good, tangible thing that people can do for the environment.” There is a real business case to use recycled resins in manufacturing processes – they generally behave almost identically, compared to virgin resins. There can be color issues, we can’t overcome them in “natural”, un-colored forms, but we also do use plastic colorants and achieve equal colored results in using 100% post-consumer resin feedstocks, to what we would accomplish with virgin plastic resin.

Origins Yavapai College AZ

Origins Yavapai College AZ

The average person can help expand the use of recycled plastic resins by always asking for and looking to find recycled alternatives to the usual plastic products. For our business use, we lock up approx. 2,100+ plastic bottles in a single 5′ x 10′ panel that might be the wall in the next public restroom stall you personally use. That is a very good thing !!!


Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer



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