GM Exits PLASTICS, Greenpeace Lauds Move

The environmental organization, teaming with others, seems to have adopted a new tact of pressuring OEMs and brandowners to end their association with the Plastics Industry Association, but to what end?


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General Motors joins the ranks of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and SC Johnson as corporations that have dropped their membership in the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) under pressure from environmental organization Greenpeace, among others. In a press release, Greenpeace said that GM had told the organization that it had allowed its membership to lapse, citing “an evolution in how the company thinks about plastics.”

GM didn’t not issue a formal statement on the matter, but a representative confirmed to me that the company didn’t renew its membership. What Greenpeace didn’t say in its release, or the statements issued upon the departure of the other three companies mentioned, is that GM will no longer use plastics in its products.

A move like that for GM—or Coke, Pepsi or SC Johnson for that matter—would be difficult if not impossible, disregarding whether or not it would be environmentally beneficial. According to the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics In Automotive group, plastics take up 50% of the volume of new light vehicles but less than 10% of their weight. Lighter cars use less fuel and produce less emissions (electric vehicles which are even more dependent on plastics/composites use no fuel and have zero emissions).

Today’s average light vehicle contains 377 pounds of plastics and composites. This is up from 286 pounds in 2000; 195 pounds in 1990; and in 1960, less than 20 pounds. In the mid-1960s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, American automobiles used an average of 3000 lb of steel. In 2012, according to the Department of Energy, the average weight of a new car—all of it—was 3482 lb. Fleet weight averages are skewed heavier by trucks and SUVs, and the addition of gadgets to cars adds weight, but lighter vehicles, which consume less or no fuel, will not be possible without plastics.

Thinking about this trend and the push to make vehicles even lighter and more efficient, I asked Greenpeace what its official stance on vehicle lightweighting and improved fuel economy/efficiency for vehicles was. Greenpeace Clean Air Now Project Lead Lauren Reid provided me this statement:

While improved fuel efficiency in cars could have helped stem the tide of climate change if implemented a few decades ago, this step is too little and too late to address the ecological breakdown that is caused by the fossil fuel and car industries. A rapid end to sales and subsequent phase-out of vehicles that use the internal combustion engine is the most critical step the industry and governments can take to keep the planet below 1.5 degrees of warming.

Ultimately we must dramatically cut fuel consumption in our transport system—this means strong and continued investments in widespread public transport, better access to commuting by foot and bicycle, and micro-mobility solutions. As part of that, we need fewer cars—ones that we share, rather than own.

In its release, Greenpeace refers quite a bit to PLASTICS lobbying against bag bans without mentioning how GM applies plastics. Just this May, GM awarded Continental Structural Plastics with its Innovation Award for the creation of the industry’s first carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastic pickup box. This cut 62 pounds of weight while boosting strength and durability (read more at our sister publication, Composites World).

By leaving PLASTICS, GM and these other companies in some ways remove themselves from the conversation about what the future of plastics looks like at a table that includes all the key stakeholders from resin and equipment makers to processors and recyclers. The pressure from Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, et al feels like it’s less about shaping how GM applies plastics and composites and more about undermining North America’s plastics trade association.

Last month I spoke with Tony Radoszewski, new president and CEO about a number of things, including brandowners and OEMs leaving the association, and his take then was:

“The first thought that comes into my mind is, my heart goes out to these guys, because what they did in their businesses is found the best materials to package their products that make them affordable, convenient and safe for consumers.”

I also asked Radoszewski if there was a constructive conversation to be had with a group like Greenpeace.

Yeah, I think so and the first question should be, ‘Look, I know you’re coming after us, great, why?’ And let’s hear that why, and then the second question is, ‘What solution would you propose beside banning because banning would only move it back to a material that plastic already replaced?’ So if you’re banning what the marketplace, the consumer has determined is the best product to a product that has already been shown to be inferior to plastics, who gets hurt? The consumer gets hurt, and if Greenpeace, or any other NGO, can offer solution to make peoples’ lives better, or at least the same, I’d like to hear that.

I haven’t spoken to anyone in the plastics industry who doesn’t acknowledge that there are significant issues facing plastics right now, particularly around its end of life. I guess I don’t see how those issues are addressed by pressuring companies who are in a position to help shape that future out of the association best equipped to bring all the stakeholders together and find answers.