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How Do We Measure Sustainability? Just One Word: Standards.

Matthew Kastner

Buy coffee lately?

You may have noticed labels on the packaging by “certification” organizations that track and certify that the coffee growers:

  • receive an above standard “premium” price (Fairtrade);
  • comply with United States “organic” standards (USDA Organic); or
  • manage farms according to sustainability standards (Rainforest Alliance).

When everything works right, coffee drinkers can rest assured that their coffee meets certain standards.

What about recycling? Sometimes an item carries a label indicating that it’s made with a certain amount of recycled content. That label applies to recycled content from a mechanical recycling process, but currently does not apply to plastics recycled using advanced technologies that break down plastics into chemical building blocks.

That’s why we think now is the time to develop certification standards for advanced plastics recycling technologies.

Advanced plastics recycling refers to innovative technologies that break down plastics into their molecular building blocks. These “feedstocks” then are repurposed into valuable materials, such as raw materials for new plastics, industrial chemicals, waxes or fuels. These technologies significantly expand end-of-life solutions for plastics both in the U.S. and globally, which will help keep plastics in productive use… and out of the environment.

 So, how can we measure the recycled content in a product made with feedstocks from advance recycling?

This is a timely and important question. Companies in the plastics value chain are establishing ever more ambitious goals to increase plastics recycling and the use of recycled plastics. And U.S. plastic makers have pledged to recycle/repurpose ALL plastic packaging by 2040.

So companies want to measure—and tell their customers—how much chemically recycled material is in the final product that they make, sell or use. This measurement is a key component in many companies’ sustainability goals, so it must be based on transparent, widely accepted, and trustworthy certification standards.

To help get the ball rolling, ACC’s Plastics Division recently announced new principles to guide the development of these standards. These principles will help standards development organizations create methods to trace and certify the outputs of advanced recycling and their use in new products.

Similar to the coffee examples above, ACC’s principles recommend transparent third-party certification systems that will track the flow of used plastics through the entire process: from recycling to production of new materials to certified recycled content in final consumer or commercial products.

To make this feasible, ACC’s principles support a widely accepted “mass balance” approach that drives sustainable practices in multiple industries and has resulted in a high level of public trust. (For example, it’s used to measure “renewables” in biofuels and power generation.) Rather than following every individual used plastic molecule from origin to destination, the mass balance approach measures the amount of used plastic that enters advanced recycling processes and makes certain that claims of recycled content in the resultant products do not exceed that amount.

And ACC is not alone. Our approach is aligned with other entities in this space, including the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification system and Ellen MacArthur Foundation CE100.

Broad global adoption of standards for outputs from advanced plastic recycling will provide some clear guidance to brands and the value chain to support clear marketing claims and removes some barriers to investment, leading to greater market and consumer acceptance. This will help enable more rapid growth of advanced recycling businesses, more collection of used plastics, and more demand for the outputs of advanced recycling… all leading to a more circular economy for plastics and helping companies and consumers contribute to sustainability.

More information on ACC’s principles.

About the Author
American Chemistry Council

The American Chemistry Council’s mission is to advocate for the people, policy, and products of chemistry that make the United States the global leader in innovation and manufacturing. To achieve this, we: Champion science-based policy solutions across all levels of government; Drive continuous performance improvement to protect employees and communities through Responsible Care®; Foster the development of sustainability practices throughout ACC member companies; and Communicate authentically with communities about challenges and solutions for a safer, healthier and more sustainable way of life. Our vision is a world made better by chemistry, where people live happier, healthier, and more prosperous lives, safely and sustainably—for generations to come.