By Nora Jacobs, Hennes Communications
If you’ve been to a food establishment recently and received a paper straw in lieu of the ubiquitous plastic device, you are witnessing the mature stage of an issue lifecycle — in this case, an issue that has been evolving for more than 30 years.
Clients often ask us the difference between a crisis and an issue. They have a number of elements in common. Perhaps the most significant being their potential for threatening an organization’s bottom line and its position in the marketplace. But issues have the distinction typically of being far more complex, having many more stakeholders involved, requiring a far more studied management strategy and taking more time both to develop and resolve. The issue of plastic packaging and its impact on the environment is an excellent example of how complex, how far-reaching and how long-lasting such an issue can be.
The use of plastic packaging in disposable food service items provided a huge market opportunity for the plastics industry. Indeed, as the fast-food industry established itself as a part of modern life, materials that could keep food hotter, colder or fresher and be more durable for the consumer were a godsend. As their use spread, however, it became clear that disposable plastic had a downside. As early as the 1980s, there was concern that these products were overcrowding landfills and their chemistry was contributing to depletion of the ozone layer. McDonald’s succumbed to those protests in 1990, when it announced that it was abandoning its Styrofoam clamshell and returning to cardboard boxes for its burgers. Other fast-food giants followed, but some plastic service items remained in place, including forks, spoons, coffee cups and straws.
Fast-forward a decade or two, and another problem connected to the use of disposable plastics is now front and center: the impact these items are having on the world’s oceans. Today, the world boasts (if that can be the appropriate word to use) five garbage islands floating in various parts of the globe. The largest, located north of Hawaii and known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” is reported to weigh 88,000 tons, the equivalent of 500 jumbo jets and be twice the size of Texas. It is largely composed of plastic that is disposed directly to the water or finds its way there via municipal sewer systems. If you have walked a beach on any continent in recent years, you will see stray plastics among the many discarded items the oceans have tried to give back to us.
This global problem has not escaped the notice of regulators around the world. A number of states now ban the use of plastic bags. More recently, a new item has become the focus of their efforts. In January, a ban on plastic straws took effect in Washington DC. Other bans are planned or in effect in Hawaii, New York and Florida, among others. The EU intends to ban plastic consumer items including plates, cutlery and straws by 2021. If plastic disposables are banned from the market, can packaging for toiletries, foodstuffs and other interim uses be far behind?
If you’re in the business of selling or providing plastic packaging, how do you manage an issue like this? If you’re a high-profile plastic straw user, you may opt to voluntarily walk away as McDonald’s, Starbucks and Alaska Air have decided to do. If you’re a producer — not just of straws, but of other vulnerable items as well — with millions of dollars invested in manufacturing facilities, raw materials or other upstream components, you may decide to form a trade association to help tell your side of the story. Hence it was interesting to read the announcement in January regarding the establishment of a new trade association, The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which its website states “will be addressing an issue of global proportions.” Not surprisingly, most of the members are chemical manufacturers, but Procter & Gamble is there as well as a major user of plastic packaging.
If you are in the business of issues management, establishing a trade association is good indication that the individual members have recognized they have an issue too big for any one company to handle alone. Like many issues management campaigns, their work will no doubt be based on a complex public education, government relations, media relations, stakeholder relations and social media strategy. They will no doubt underwrite significant scientific research, support high-profile frontline remediation work and engage to find common ground with legislators and environmentalists. It will no doubt be a multi-year, if not multi-decade engagement. And, in the end, it may make a significant contribution to a very real problem. If so, this group will have successfully managed its way through a potentially market-ending issue.
In short, if your straw-manufacturing plant burns to the ground, you have a crisis. If all of Europe and North America want to ban your straws from the marketplace, you have an issue.