A “Second Chances” Story: Plastics Recycling

Professor Plastics

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I’m a sucker for good movies about second chances. Back to the Future. Peggy Sue Got Married. Groundhog Day. (Although Bill Murray actually got dozens of second chances.)

And songs, too. There must be a gazillion songs about giving relationships a second chance. There is something about being given a second chance that feels just down right … American.

Why is Professor Plastics talking about second chances?

Because I not only admire what engineers and chemists and others do to create modern-day innovations in plastics. I also admire what we’re doing as a nation to give many of those plastics a second chance through recycling. As I’ve said numerous times, burying valuable resources in the ground is a huge waste. Giving plastics a second chance just makes sense.

Our nation’s growing recycling rates—for plastics and many other materials—demonstrate that we’re getting better at providing a second chance through recycling. And as communities broaden the types of plastics they accept for recycling, I expect those rates to continue to grow.

It’s a great story that needs to be told. So, hey, if anybody wants to make a movie (or write a song) about giving plastics a second chance, here are some ideas to get your creative juices flowing …

  • Recycling rates for many plastics have risen dramatically since we started tracking them. Storyline: Skeptical public thinks plastics aren’t worth second chance. Charismatic statistician promises to keep track of plastics recycling and report progress every year. Hearing of her undertaking, public pitches in and cheers on plucky bean counter. Recycling rates rise. Statistician earns adoration of nation, chosen to head Census Bureau.
  • Plastic bags and wraps are recycled best with a little TLC to help keep them clean and separate, so they’re collected at stores. Storyline: Young environmentalist jogs across nation to convince grocery stores and big box chains to let even more people give plastic bags and wraps second chance by returning them in-store for recycling. More than 18,000 stores agree. Recycling rates increase five-fold in decade and half. Environmentalist grows great beard, wins lucrative running shoe endorsement.
  • Automakers are increasing the use of recycled plastics in cars and trucks. Storyline: Brilliant auto engineer faces skepticism in C-suite over his claim that company can use recycled plastics in car parts. He works nights and weekends for no pay developing first car seat fabric made with recycled plastic, giving used bottles second chance. Company installs car seats to great accolades as contribution to sustainability. Other carmakers follow suit. Engineer given stock options worth millions.
  • More than 20 percent of Californians can recycle their polystyrene foam plates and cups and other polystyrene packaging in curbside recycling bins. Storyline: College chemistry student stares at foam cup, wondering why coffee doesn’t burn his hand and asking: can this amazing material get second chance rather than undignified trip to landfill? Research finds demand for used foam plastic, and student launches online campaign to convince communities to collect it for recycling. Californians climb on board recycling train. Student gets “A” in Professor Plastics’ class.

Good stories, right? OK, now you know why I’m a professor and not a screenwriter.

These movie plots are made up (duh), but we are recycling more plastics every year, there are more than 18,000 stores that collect plastic bags and wraps, car makers are increasingly turning to recycled plastics for car parts, and many Californians are collecting polystyrene foam at curbside … giving a second chance to plastics that served us so well in their first life.

I wish there were a good song about giving plastics a second chance through recycling. I’d offer to write one, but my song writing talents are on par with my screenwriting. And you don’t ever want to hear me sing.