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Barriers to Sustainability in Plastics-related Industries
   by Bonnie J. Bachman and Shristy Bashyal, Missouri University of Science and Technology, and Margaret Baumann, GHA Associates
   Marketing   Fall  2012
  
Although many industries today recognize the importance of sustainability, it is not easy to address it effectively. This study focused on understanding the importance of sustainability as part of the corporate agenda in different plastics-related industries and the strategies these companies are implementing to address sustainability effectively.

What is sustainability?
When asked about the organization-wide definition of sustainability, 45 percent of the senior managers believed sustainability refers to addressing issues from a long term perspective. About 40 percent of the respondents who consider themselves an expert in the area indicated sustainability incorporates climate change, environmental, social and economic issues. About 47 percent of the companies based in the US believed sustainability refers to addressing issues from a long term perspective and 46 percent of the companies operating in three or more regions believe sustainability incorporates climate change, environmental, social and economic issues. These responses reflect the earlier discussion regarding the definition of sustainability: varied and multiple areas of emphasis.

The most significant external challenges faced by the respondents was insufficient customer demand or need (30 percent) and was followed by an absence of clear industry standards (23 percent).

On the whole, not persuaded of a business case or proven value proposition was the most significant internal challenge noted in the survey (22 percent). This is of interest since respondents were almost equally split when asked if their organization had developed a clear business case or proven value proposition for sustainability. Other important internal challenges noted were a lack of understanding regarding the most effective ways to take action and not enough resources to address sustainability issues.

Who’s responsible?
When asked who is responsible for addressing sustainability issues, most of the senior managers of private, public or government organizations believed that each business unit in their company has responsibility. A majority of the academic professionals responded that all employees have a responsibility for sustainability. Most of the C-suite executives of private, public or government organizations said they do not address sustainability issues at all in their company. Of those that do address it, each business unit had a group responsible for sustainability, but no corporate wide coordination exists. This last response from the C- suite executives did not reflect the majority of those completing the survey.

Overall, only six percent indicated their organizations did not address sustainability issues and 15 percent were not clear on who has responsibility. Thirty-six percent indicated all employees have a responsibility with 11 percent reporting a senior or executive-level individual has full responsibility.

What strategies?
From the survey, a majority of the companies in the size range of 500 MM+ are focusing on improving efficiency on energy consumption, whereas a majority of the companies in the <10 MM range are focusing on reducing waste. Results also indicate the majority of the medium sized companies are trying to design products or processes for reuse or recycle. They also focus on sustainable packaging and efficient energy consumption.

Excerpted with permission from the author from an article appearing in Plastics Engineering. Members of SPE were surveyed to obtain data.