Consultant: New Battles Emerge in Plastics Debate

And Flexible Packaging Companies Must Improve Circularity

Consultant: New Battles Emerge in Plastics Debate
Digital Exclusive

The flexible packaging industry is no longer losing the public relations war with environmentalists over how consumers view the issues. It may have already lost it, according to Esteban Sagel, principal at ChemPMC, a Texas-based chemical and polymer market consultant.

“We are engineers trying to explain with science how good we are to a very emotional public,” Sagel says in April, several weeks after giving a presentation at the 2024 Annual Meeting of the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) in Tucson, Arizona. “We need to connect with their emotional side, as well. We were missing that important point.”

Sagel says he also made that point during his presentation to FPA members in March, suggesting that consumers have not been viewing the issues from a scientific standpoint. Instead, they only see how litter affects wildlife and the environment. The flexible packaging industry can influence the future if it focuses on allaying the concerns of consumers through improvements in circularity as well as showing how its products are superior environmentally to the alternatives.

Technical innovations have helped such as making flexible packaging more recyclable, he explains. But they have not changed consumers’ minds.

“We are doing the right things on the technical side,” he says. “But now we need to work on circularity.”

The emotional arguments make potential solutions hard to enact. For example, chemical recycling is expensive and not fully scalable, and it will face obstacles from plastic opponents who would rather ban materials. That makes the job more difficult for people who propose solutions that enhance circularity, and it will take a lot to persuade government officials and regulators to back such efforts, Sagel says.

“The demand is there. The interest is there. And the desire is there,” he says. “But the regulatory environment for those technologies is not there yet.”

“It is a complex problem,” Sagel also says, adding that somewhere between the science and the emotion will be the “sweet spot” for solutions. “It is going to be a process. It is not going to happen overnight.”

Roadblocks Ahead

More recently, some of the conversation has turned to how plastics can be bad for human health, Sagel says, pointing to medical journals publishing articles about those concerns.

“The environmentalist war against plastics is opening new fronts, this time on the potential impact of plastics on human health,” he writes in a report based on his presentation, which is titled Polyethylene Market Overview: Thriving in Leaner Times. “We see litigation and regulation against our industry on the rise.”

More regulations such as extended producer responsibility laws are being enacted in the United States and globally, he points out.

“It is not only litigation that the industry must contend with. Regulations are on the rise, on a global basis,” he writes in his report. “… Our message to you is simple: time is running out for the polymer industry to get ahead of the trends and show advancements in its efforts to improve the circularity of plastics and its commitment to lessen any environmental impacts its products may cause.”

In addition to the opponents, the roadblocks to success will include the required investments in collection, sorting, and recycling infrastructure; the lack of harmonized standards and/or regulations of everything related to sustainability/circularity; the complexity of plastic waste; the lack of cost competitiveness of recycled products; the regulation uncertainty for advanced recycling solutions; and the need to improve collaboration across the value chain.

“Of those, only two (complexity of plastic waste and the need to improve collaboration throughout the value chain) are within the industry control,” he writes. “For almost everything else, it is at the mercy of external forces.”

Some of the actions that industry leaders can take include:

  • Increasing collaboration across the value chain;
  • Creating ambassadors “to tell its story and highlight the benefits of plastics;”
  • Investing in infrastructure;
  • Reconsidering some packaging performance requirements such as extended shelf life that may help achieve circularity goals; and
  • Promoting messaging that should fall on the whole value chain and not just producers, converters, or brands.

“We need to get our story out in a simple and straightforward way,” the report says. “… If it cannot be said and understood in a TikTok minute, it won’t be effective.”

Polyethylene Markets 

Sagel’s presentation at the March 2024 meeting also focused on market trends.

“ChemPMC expects total polyethylene demand to decrease by 2% this year, with production rising by 4% and exports by 12%,” Sagel writes in his report. “Those exports are feeding an already oversupplied global market, which will result in additional pressure for polyethylene producers’ margins to compress.”

North American purchasers of raw materials should be aware that they might be paying higher prices than they need to pay for polyethylene because some suppliers of polymers are exporting their products at lower prices than they are charging North American companies, he says.

“You must regularly track and understand the price and cost dynamics not just in the U.S., but also in regions competing for your business (China and Southeast Asia),” he also writes. “And you should also track the export prices out of the U.S. into those regions. And, armed with that information, ask the hard questions. Why are you paying more? And ask for competitive prices in North America. Your future depends on that.”

Companies also need to pay attention to global events and how they might impact prices. For example, in the weeks after his presentation, tensions were rising in the Middle East. And the summer and fall of 2024 could see an increase in hurricane activity that could strike the Gulf Coast, where about 80% of the North American polyethylene capacity is located.

“There are many events that can impact prices in 2024,” he says. “The one that is most on my mind is the weather.”

Companies need to assess their risk aversion and have a solution in place to at least modulate the potential massive rise in prices if a massive storm does hit, he adds.

Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.