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For Plastics Recycling to Succeed, We Need National Recycling Standards

While it may appear that Americans don’t agree on much these days, they do believe we need to get better at recycling plastics.

A recent survey found that 82% of U.S. adults support national plastics recycling standards. As plastic makers, we do, too. It’s our third action in America’s Plastic Maker’s 5 Actions to Accelerate a Circular Economy for Plastics. (See my recent blogs on Actions #1 and #2.) We believe that national recycling standards for plastics are needed to support a circular economy and help achieve the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) goal to increase the national recycling rate to 50% by 2030.

Today, the U.S. recycling rate hovers around 35%, with plastic packaging lagging behind. Among the biggest reasons plastic packaging trails other materials: complexity of plastic packaging and our fractured recycling system.

The bulk of the U.S. recycling infrastructure was built decades ago, primarily to collect bottles, cans, and newspapers (remember newspapers?). Since then, lots of new types of packaging have been introduced, including lightweight plastic packaging, such as wraps, snack bags, and resealable pouches. This helped decrease the weight and amount of packaging needed to deliver food and drink, which has resulted in several important environmental benefits, such as reduced food waste, as well as less energy use, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and conserved resources compared to many alternatives. But it complicated recycling.

Today, despite the abundance of news articles confidently declaring which plastics can be recycled across the country, the truth is: It depends. All recycling is local. There are about 9,000 community recycling programs collecting 9,000 varying lists of materials. And this creates confusion for consumers and inefficient markets for recycled plastics.

To alleviate this confusion, we proposed creating national recycling standards. Here’s how it should work (and what we proposed to Congress). Our nation’s lawmakers should empower the EPA and the Department of Energy (DOE) to bring together the plastics value chain and municipalities to develop a set of national plastics recycling standards. As part of that effort, a National Plastics Recycling Advisory Committee should be established and consist of representatives across the value chain, from plastic makers, converters, and brands to recyclers and community recycling leaders.

These people would talk to each other about the impediments to achieving and work to develop national recycling standards for plastics focused on four key areas:

  • Improve collection and access
  • Improve outreach and education
  • Improve data and reporting
  • Reduce recycling contamination

Based on the advice and consultation with the Committee and other experts, EPA and DOE would develop and implement the standards.

While collection of recyclables remains locally focused, the markets and value chain for these materials typically expand way beyond the community. It’s time to recognize this and build national recycling standards for plastics.

Surely, we Americans can all agree on this?

About the Author
American Chemistry Council

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) represents the leading companies engaged in the multibillion-dollar business of chemistry. ACC members apply the science of chemistry to make innovative products, technologies and services that make people's lives better, healthier and safer. ACC is committed to improved environmental, health, safety and security performance through Responsible Care®; common sense advocacy addressing major public policy issues; and health and environmental research and product testing. ACC members and chemistry companies are among the largest investors in research and development, and are advancing products, processes and technologies to address climate change, enhance air and water quality, and progress toward a more sustainable, circular economy.

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