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  • Mike Martinez

NPE 2012 and Environmentalism

On April 4, I attended a huge plastics trade show in Orlando, Florida, known as the National Plastics Exposition (NPE) 2012. Scheduled every three years, NPE is billed as the world’s “preeminent plastics information exchange.” Plastics designers, engineers, suppliers, manufacturers, and sales people gather to view the latest equipment, machinery, and innovative developments in the industry. According to the final figures, 54,820 people registered to attend the show, which lasted from April 1-5, 2012.

Large conferences featuring plastics engineers and literally tons of machinery are not usually my cup of tea, but I decided to attend. Former presidential candidate, U.S. ambassador to China, and Utah governor Jon Huntsman was the featured speaker at a plenary session. As a former plastics industry executive, Huntsman spoke about the business opportunities in Asia and the need for lightweight plastics to be used in developing technologies. His talk was a high point of the conference, at least for political junkies.

Another high point was a robot that plays basketball. I don’t think Kobe and LeBron have anything to worry about, but here is a look at the competition:

Basketball-playing robot

As part of the exposition, the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) hosted a conference titled “The Business of Plastics.” According to the promotional materials, the Business of Plastics sessions were developed to “provide an innovative education agenda to encourage industry growth and new market development, outline the best business management practices, identify today’s downstream consumer demands, open doors to the international market, and add sustainable philosophy to your business strategy.”

At 10:00 a.m. on April 4, 2012, I spoke on the topic “Portland, Oregon, and Polystyrene Foam: Why Sustainability and Product Bans Are Incompatible.” This topic was similar to the subject matter of the paper I presented at the LCM 2011 conference in Berlin, Germany, in August 2011. On this occasion, unlike my Berlin experience, I spoke to a largely sympathetic audience. I even garnered news coverage in the trade press. My 15 minutes of fame are almost exhausted.

Plastics News Article

As I waited in the Orlando airport to fly home on the morning after my talk, still warm from the afterglow of a generally positive response, I received a reminder of how little impact such educational sessions have on the larger world.

An email came into the company website, and I immediately accessed it through my BlackBerry. This was a fairly standard message. I call these types of messages “voice of the people” emails because typically the author claims to speak for “the people” who are incensed by plastics in general or our company in particular. Such messages almost always arrive filled with grammatical errors, unsubstantiated “gut feeling” claims, and capital letters to emphasize the IMPORTANCE of the message. This one was not as bad as some messages. It did not contain profanity, threats, or promises to alert “all manner of authorities to [our] company’s malfeasance."

Expressing indignation at the company’s “Insulting and Patronizing Advertising,” the correspondent unloaded both barrels of the proverbial shotgun. He was hell-bent on informing the captains of industry that he would not put up with advertising that contradicted the conventional wisdom circulating on Internet blogs.

“It’s bad enough I have to purchase a foam cup to hold my coffee, but then you people have to add insult to injury by insulting the consumers’ intelligence with DELIBERATELY misleading information printed on it: ‘An average weight paper hot cup generates 181% more solid waste by weight than a comparable foam cup.’

“Are you actually trying to imply that biodegradable, recycle-able paper cups (largely true for almost all paper products) are MORE harmful to the environment than unrenewable, and realistically un-biodegradable foam cups. Tell me this... in 50 years, how many of YOUR cups will still be sitting in a landfill undecomposed as opposed to all of these paper cups? If you aren’t sure, I can tell you... ALL OF YOUR CUPS WILL STILL BE HARMING THE ENVIRONMENT IN 50 YEARS. Get off your greedy horse and start trying to actually do some REAL good with the influence and resources you have amassed in your company’s lifetime- YOU OWE IT TO YOUR COMSUMERS! [sic]”

I followed the writer’s advice and got off my greedy horse — or at least stepped out of my Honda Accord when I arrived home — and sent him a message explaining why biodegradation won’t solve the solid waste problem. I don’t usually hear a response after I send data and studies attached to my reply. The voice of the people typically falls silent in the face of boring data and scientific studies.

I wonder what the correspondent would think if he knew I was writing a book on the history of environmentalism. I have an idea: He would dismiss the entire project as rife with DELIBERATELY misleading information.

I doubt I placated the correspondent, and my talk at NPE 2012 probably changed few minds, but I vowed to fight the good fight. The voice of the people is loud and shrill, but so is mine.

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