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Opinion: Let’s change the conversation around plastic

Restaurants should focus on solving recycling

JoeKefauver1.pngJoe Kefauver is managing partner of Align Public Strategies, a full-service public affairs and creative firm that helps corporate brands, governments and nonprofits navigate the outside world and inform their internal decision-making. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News or Restaurant Hospitality.

Most people remember the iconic scene in The Graduate when Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, is pulled aside at his graduation party by a friend of his parents’ who gives him some fatherly advice about his future.

The distinguished Mr. McGuire says, “I just want to say one word to you, Ben — one word….plastics.”

As we know, Hoffman’s character ultimately follows another path but Mr. McGuire couldn’t have been more right. The rest is history. Over the last 50 years, plastics have become an integral part of modern American life. Plastics have revolutionized everything from manufacturing processes to consumer products.

But despite two to three previous generations’ embracing every conceivable use of plastic, the latest generation is successfully orchestrating a social and cultural — and increasingly political — rejection of plastics (and, in particular, single-use plastics) due to its impact on the environment. Ironically, a persuasive argument for the expanded use of plastic — once upon a time — was environmental. Synthetics were preferred over paper / cotton products due to concerns over deforestation and environmental impact. But, the political winds have shifted.

Whether the rejection of plastics has merit or whether the associated solutions under discussion get to the heart of the matter is a debate for another day. But regardless of your personal opinions on the issue, we must acknowledge that the industry is in a terrible position when it comes to the current political battles over single-use plastics. Whether its plastic bag bans, straw bans, plastic cutlery bans or the politically-related looming prohibitions on Styrofoam (New Jersey just outlawed it), we are getting easily defeated not only in the public conversation, but also in the ensuing legislative and regulatory battles.

And it’s just getting started.

We will lose far more of these battles — especially at the local level — than we will ever win and we will lose enough times in enough places that leading companies will be making internal changes to stay ahead of the curve. Not to mention consumer and public opinion — that is an entirely different subject.

So why do we lose? First, we don’t have enough political power, especially locally to push back on these bans. Secondly, history may show we could be on the wrong side of the issue.

All legitimate reasons.

But I would argue that the main reason we lose is that we offer policymakers and opinion leaders no alternatives. We having nothing to argue except financial impact and convenience. News Flash. We will continue to lose.

We lose because we are having the wrong conversation. How could we ever win a conversation framed as pro-plastics vs no plastics. Are we really going to allow ourselves to be perceived as the advocate for plastics in this political environment? If so, we deserve what we get.

Or, just maybe, we could have a different conversation. Maybe the conversation shouldn’t be about the production and utilization of single-use plastics, but what we do with it after it’s used. Maybe, instead, the conversation should be about how virtually everyone appreciates the convenience that single-use plastic products afford us — but we also understand those products are threatening the environment and thus have a shared responsibility for figuring out ways to lessen the harmful impacts of those products.

Maybe the future is “recycling” — or better yet, the “recycling market.”

Sit down with the mayor of any major city and you could get a PhD on recycling and how the market works — or actually doesn’t work. And while the economics of that marketplace have always been shaky, our recent presidential-level slap fight with China has had the unintended consequences of shutting down what was left of the recycling market.

But what if those major consumer-facing industries and their leading brands in the restaurant, retail, grocery, convenience store, and drug store space — along with manufacturers in the plastics industry — got together to see if they collectively could be the spark to reignite the recycling marketplace.

We partner together to essentially prop up the market until it has the momentum to take off on its own. And then we go sit down with America’s leading mayors and other government officials to see if we can collectively scale it. A tall order no doubt. And even if possible, it would take years.

But in the meantime, wouldn’t we rather be engaged in that conversation — a conversation that frames us as a leader in finding the solution — as opposed to the current one that frames us as part of the problem? Wouldn’t we want to be in a position to make local conversations about banning straws seem trivial? Wouldn’t the brands themselves want that positioning with their employees and consumers? One would think so.

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