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What Policies Can Help Improve Plastics Recycling?

Craig Cookson

Lots of questions.

At last month’s (virtual) Plastics Recycling Conference, I participated on a panel that discussed  public policies that could enable more plastics recycling. 

After last year’s (non-virtual) conference, I wrote that plastic makers were focused on how “the entire plastic value chain can move from the past’s linear model… to a new circular model that enables us to use—and reuse—more of our plastics resources.” This year, I proposed that we’re likely going to need good public policy to get there.

Dan Leif of Resource Recycling Magazine queried Eco-Cycle’s Kate Bailey and me on the pros and cons of various policies circulating within several legislative and regulatory arenas. What about extended producer responsibility (EPR)? Mandated recycled plastic? Packaging fees and more?

All good questions. So let’s dig in…

First, we all acknowledged that the focus on plastics recycling over the past few years has sharpened dramatically throughout the value chain. Interest in recycling more plastics and using them in brand products and packaging has reached an all-time high. There’s been more than $5.5 billion of announced new domestic investments in plastics recycling in the past three years, focused primarily on advanced recycling technologies that will allow us to recycle more types of plastics. And America’s Plastic Makers set a goal for all plastic packaging in the U.S. to be reused, recycled or recovered by 2040, an ambitious vision that will also require collective commitment and helpful government policies.

So… policies. What about product stewardship? The concept of requiring entities other than local waste and recycling organizations to help pay for collecting and recycling packaging has only recently begun to gain traction in the U.S. Perhaps it’s the growing realization that the recycling infrastructure as built is outdated, that local governments need help, and that the inadequate access to collection infrastructure cannot produce the supply needed to succeed. So how can our nation equitably pay for the recycling infrastructure we need? The answer appears to lie in collaboration among companies, communities, and lawmakers. Which leads to the next question…

What about fees on packaging, a form of product stewardship? The ACC along with seventeen other organizations have signed onto The Recycling Partnership’s proposed Packaging and Printed Paper Fee that would apply to all packaging materials and printed paper, including plastics, metal, glass, and paper fiber. The fees would be collected from brand companies by an industry stewardship organization and used to fund capital investment in collection and sortation infrastructure, as well as consumer outreach and education. The goal: increased supply of recyclable material to meet growing demand. We believe it’s time to implement such a program.

What about recycled plastics standards for new packaging? When done equitably, there’s a place for public policy to help drive increased use of recycled materials. Numerous states have proposed or passed legislation requiring recycled plastics in various products and packaging. When these types of policies are approached correctly, it’s another tool to drive increased demand for recycled plastics. And…

It’s essential that policies across the country recognize the vital role advanced recycling must play in meeting sustainability goals… and that any recycled plastics requirements for new packaging include the products of advanced recycling. Advanced recycling technologies allow us to remanufacture more used plastics and turn them into new plastics and other products, enabling our nation to use its resources more efficiently. And to help end plastic waste.

It’s the combination of mechanical and advanced recycling that will allow us to reach our recycling goals. We’re encouraging the U.S. EPA and Congress to codify this point into policy. There were (and are) more policy questions to answer, such as how to account for these recycled plastics materials. But we’re encouraged that the plastics value chain is highly engaged in moving toward a more circular economy for plastics and is discussing new policy options that will lead to effective solutions to help end plastic waste.

About the author
American Chemistry Council

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) represents the leading companies engaged in the business of chemistry. ACC members apply the science of chemistry to make innovative products and services that make people's lives better, healthier and safer. ACC is committed to improved environmental, health and safety performance through Responsible Care®; common sense advocacy designed to address major public policy issues; and health and environmental research and product testing. The business of chemistry is a $486 billion enterprise and a key element of the nation's economy. It is among the largest exporters in the nation, accounting for ten percent of all U.S. goods exports. Chemistry companies are among the largest investors in research and development. Safety and security have always been primary concerns of ACC members, and they have intensified their efforts, working closely with government agencies to improve security and to defend against any threat to the nation’s critical infrastructure.

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