By Heather Nortz
Manager, Sustainability and Materials

Recently, PLASTICS held our 2022 Re|focus Sustainability & Recycling Summit in Cincinnati. Having held this annual event virtually the past two years, enthusiasm for gathering in person was evident throughout all three days of the Summit. It was especially apparent in the Exhibitor Marketplace, where there was certainly an itch to get back together and build relationships with peers over drinks (held with PolyVisions’ unique drink holder), and legendary Cincinnati chili.

The goal of every Re|focus event is to provide attendees with actionable, tangible sustainability solutions that can be implemented at their workplace or in their daily operations as soon as they get home. With forty speakers, three tracks, and ten exhibitors, it is certain that there were plenty of such takeaways. That said, here is a brief recap of some high-level lessons I came away with:

Learning from each other is the path toward accelerating the industry’s sustainability efforts.

The whole idea of holding educational sessions is just that: learning from one another’s experiences and then applying that knowledge in our own affairs. However, there is a difference between discussing theoretical ideas and explaining the details in which an actual challenge was overcome. Each one of our forty speakers gave practical examples of their own sustainability efforts and in doing so was able to teach others how they can do the same.

Outside of the presentations, attendees were able to further expand upon how they would go about applying these lessons in their own organizations through solutions-sharing discussions. One example of this was a best practices sharing roundtable discussion facilitated by Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) and OCSblue Members during a lunch break. This collaborative approach mitigates the need to recreate the wheel and thus is key to accelerating shared success in plastics sustainability.

There is a hunger for broadening the scope of what “sustainability” means in the plastics industry.

Continuous improvement begins with identifying weak points. Among all aspects of sustainability (environmental, social, governance; people, planet, profit; the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals) the plastics industry is actively working to detect areas of weakness and strengthen them. Here are two examples:

Engaging young people and developing a workforce that represents diversity, equity, and inclusion is something organizations in the plastics industry are heavily focusing on right now. Numerous speakers dove into strategies for strengthening this area of weakness. Solving this challenge requires an amount of corporate introspection that can be uncomfortable at times, but the plastics industry has embraced this necessary shift in mindset.

Another topic on everyone’s minds is mitigating and cleaning up existing plastic waste. This challenge is being hit on from all angles--strengthening recycling and composting systems, designing products to be more circular, incentivizing companies to invest in recovering plastic material from the environment, and preventing plastic from getting there in the first place. We love plastic; we hate plastic waste. In order to reach the goal of keeping all plastic material in the value chain, people within this industry are consistently implementing innovative ideas to strengthen weak points within the industry, which often means broadening the scope of how we define “sustainability”.

Surrounding ourselves with passionate individuals who hold a shared vision of improving the impact of plastics reinvigorates our “Why”.

As PLASTICS’ President and CEO, Matt Seaholm, said at the Association’s Spring National Meeting and Conference, – our “Why”, our purpose for doing what we do, is of primary importance. It is easy to lose sight of our broader purpose when focusing on the day-to-day madness. However, coming to an event like Re|focus, in which you are surrounded by enthusiasm and innovative ideas and can see these ideas being brought to life through facility tours, exhibit displays, and the Sustainability Innovation Awards, has a way of lighting a fire within you.

It reminds you that this is an incredible industry—one that not only creates products people use every day, enhances our standard of living, and saves lives, but also strives to improve environmental and social impacts as well. This is an industry made up of sincere people who work hard to support their families. It is an industry we are proud to be a part of, an industry worth fighting for.

Re|focus 2023 is being held from May 1-5 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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