Plastic, The Industry, A Sustainability Enabler – Part 3

May 3, 2022

The first two parts of this series focused on of how plastic—the material—contributes to the accomplishing the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Plastic products contribute directly to enabling the realization of 10 out of the 17 SDGs; almost 60%. Arguably, plastic materials aid in the realization of the remaining 7 goals as well.

By Heather​ Nortz
Manager, Sustainability and Materials

The first two parts of this series focused on of how plastic—the material—contributes to the accomplishing the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Plastic products contribute directly to enabling the realization of 10 out of the 17 SDGs; almost 60%.

Arguably, plastic materials aid in the realization of the remaining 7 goals as well, due to the communication devices, transportation vehicles, and infrastructure it is used to create; here, however, we are shifting gears to talk about how the people and programs that make up the plastics industry are sustainability enablers as well, especially with regard to the remaining 7 SDGs

SDG 1 – No Poverty

End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

According to PLASTICS latest Size and Impact report, the plastics industry directly provides 945.3 thousand jobs in the U.S. It also accounts for 606.3 thousand jobs in upstream industries (suppliers to the plastics industry). In total, the industry has a full employment impact of 1.55 million jobs.

Shipments from the plastics industry total $394.7 billion. When suppliers to the plastics industry are considered, total shipments grow to $541.6 billion. This is a viable and growing industry that is able to continuously employ, promote, and appropriately compensate its workers. 

The people working in the plastics industry are able to sustain lives well above the poverty line. Furthermore, many growth opportunities exist throughout the industry for employees at all levels to work their way up to more highly compensated positions. Finding work within this industry is accessible to people with a wide variety of education and experience levels. Often, paid apprenticeships or internships are available as well, allowing workers new to the industry to cultivate valuable skills.

SDG 5 – Gender Equality

Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Similar to many other industries, the plastics industry is working to combat gender inequality challenges. The people who make up the plastics industry have created numerous programs and operational changes to achieve gender equality and to empower women and girls into leadership positions. Operational changes can be seen in organizational Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) commitments and in individuals being more intentional to achieve equal gender representation in selections for employment, filling leadership positions, invitations for speaking opportunities, etc. Examples of programs include:

Women Breaking the Mold

The name of an annual feature series, report, and event created by Plastics News to highlight and appreciate the accomplishments of women in the industry.

Future Leaders in Plastics (FLiP)

PLASTICS’ FLiP Committee is a group created by and for young professionals to network and create community as well as to cultivate qualities and skills to better prepare them to take on leadership roles.

Women and Girls in Science Day / Women’s History Month

While these holidays are not industry-specific, the plastics industry regularly participates in celebrating female leaders on and around this day and month. This past March, PLASTICS published a series on social media featuring some of the many female leaders in the industry. Many who were featured offered comments on how much the industry has changed in terms of gender inclusion, especially in leadership roles.

SDG 8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth

Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.

The plastics industry was ranked the eighth largest U..S industry in PLASTICS latest Size and Impact report. According to Grand View Research, “global plastic market size was valued at USD 579.7 billion in 2020 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.4% from 2021 to 2028.”

A growing industry that manufactures a material essential to numerous daily activities offers a high degree of security in full and productive jobs.

SDG 10 – Reduced Inequalities

Reduce inequality within and among countries.

One indicator[1] that this SDG cites is “total compensation of all employees within a country as a share of its GDP”. According to ZipRecruiter, the average salary of a plastics industry worker in the U.S. is about $63,000. The national average salary across all industries is about $67,000. Though there is a $4,000 gap, this growing industry is well on its way to reaching the national average employee compensation. The rationale for this measurement contributing to SDG 10 is that higher incomes for individuals “indicates improved living standards of individuals in the economy”. The plastics industry is capable of doing its part to ensure decent living standards for those who work in it.

SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production

Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

The plastics industry is consistently investing in responsible consumption of resources and production of plastic products. Last October, to celebrate Energy Efficiency Day, PLASTICS highlighted seven of our equipment supplier members committed to energy efficiency in their products. Those members include: Bekum America CorporationEngel GlobalFrigel North America, Inc.Maguire Products, Inc.Wittman Battenfeld, Inc.Yushin, and ACS Group.

Using recycled and/or biobased content in materials and products is another way the plastics industry contributes to SDG 12. During the 2021 Bioplastics Week (September 13 – 17) and Recycling Week (November 15 – 19) social media campaigns, PLASTICS highlighted many companies using these materials in their products. Companies in the plastics industry also invest in processes that allow this recycled content to become available. Some examples include:

New End Market Opportunities (NEMO) – A PLASTICS program that works to discover ways to recycle products that were previously not commonly recycled. Successful projects include recycling of plastic film bags and car bumpers.

Advanced recycling investments

New recycling facilities

Advocacy efforts to ensure advanced recycled material is counted as recycled content by governmental agencies

Mechanical recycling investments

Improving access to recycling

Optical sorting

Digital watermarking

Designing products to be mechanically recycled more easily

Educational campaigns to teach consumers how to properly recycle

Industrial composting investments

Improving access to composting

New industrial composting facilities

Educational campaigns to teach consumers how to properly compost

SDG 16 – Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions

Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Many companies, in the plastics industry and elsewhere, are paying more attention to their supply chains than they have in the past. Transparency regarding where a company’s resources come from and how the workers are treated throughout the entire process is paramount in achieving corporate social responsibility, which most if not all companies are striving for. Some tactical ways plastics companies are achieving this are:

  1. Sourcing plastic material from polluted beaches in developing countries and employing local community members to help with collection. An example of this is explained in-depth in our Re|focus 2020 Webinar Episode – Telling Our Sustainability Stories.
  1. Ensuring that each organization they are related to have policies and procedures in place that make them a sustainable and responsible partner. Examples of these policies and procedures can include:
  • Ethics policies for human trafficking, child labor, responsible sourcing, DE&I, etc.
  • Procedures to avoid and/or rectify noncompliance incidents such as effluent testing, wastewater treatment, air pollution mitigation, etc.
  • Strategies for continuous sustainability improvement in all three areas of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance).
  1. An understanding of their ability to mitigate or manage the impacts they are having on environmental and social issues.
  1. Strategies for company resiliency.

SDG 17 – Partnerships for the Goals

Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.

These goals cannot be achieved by any one individual or company. Partnerships are critical for making progress on sustainability initiatives of any kind, including the SDGs. Partnerships within the plastics industry focus mainly on improving collection, sortation, and recycling systems and infrastructure to mitigate plastic products or material from entering the environment. A few examples include:

Alliance to End Plastic Waste – Brings together more than 90 member companies, project partners, allies, and supporters to focus on infrastructure, innovation, education & engagement, and cleanup to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment now and into the future.

Ellen McArthur Foundation – A research collaboration focused on numerous sustainability initiatives, including circular economy and plastic waste mitigation. This organization brings togethermore than150 companies to work on these initiatives in a collaborative way.

Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) – A research collaboration that brings together leading brands, manufacturers, packaging companies, trade associations, and other key members of the value chain committed to finding solutions for better recovery of flexible packaging and films.

The Recycling Partnership (TRP) – The partnership’s Polypropylene Recycling Coalition works to improve access to curbside recycling, sortation abilities, and abundance of end markets for polypropylene. A Coalition for PET Recycling is also being created by TRP.

The purpose of explaining how the plastics industry contributes to all 17 of the U.N. SDGs, either with the material we manufacture, the programs we run, or the people behind those things, is to show that everyone has a role to play in each and every one of these sustainability goals. The solutions contributed by the plastics industry may look different than those of educational institutions, NGOs, federal or local governments, etc. However, that does not negate the importance of the impact the industry’s efforts have.

[1] SDG Indicator: a form of measurement that will signal whether or not the goal is being reached.