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Who Decides What’s Sustainable?

National Academies Could Shed Some Light

I spend a good bit of my professional time working to increase plastics recycling. I see recycling as a greater good, a way of reusing valuable resources and driving down greenhouse gas emissions, among other sustainability benefits.

And it’s been really gratifying to see plastic makers evolving their business models to include advanced recycling, part of their push to “remake” as much plastic as feasible.

But the national discussion around recycling too often devolves into an either/or argument that typically ends in: Either it’s recyclable or it’s bad. As highly as I regard recycling, we occasionally need to step back and ask: Is recycling the only measure of sustainability?

Of course, the answer is no.

EPA’s useful waste management hierarchy has become almost fabled: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The hierarchy is designed to improve environmental sustainability, typically defined as meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

As the hierarchy implicitly acknowledges, environmental sustainability goes way beyond recycling cans and bottles. It encompasses energy and natural resource use, air/water emissions, climate change, waste generation, and more.  In my world, discussions often center around materials, packaging, and products.

America’s plastic makers are asking Congress to initiate a good hard look at plastics and sustainability, particularly in relation to other materials. It’s Action #4 of 5 Actions for Sustainable Change, five important steps Congress can take to accelerate a circular economy for plastics through a comprehensive, national strategy (you can read more here).

In Action #4, we call on Congress to direct the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct a study on the comparative benefits, resource use, resource efficiency, and carbon impact of materials such as plastics, steel, aluminum, glass, textiles, wood, and paper. The study would cover the entire lifecycle of materials – raw material extraction, processing, transportation, production, packaging, use, disposal, and recovery/recycling.

Basically, the National Academies would be measuring sustainability.

The outcome would be quite useful. It could contribute to EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management program. It could inform brand companies on their choice of materials for packaging and products. And even consumers could gain a better understanding of the science behind sustainability.

While not always the case, in general the less material we all use, the lighter our environmental footprint. We believe public policy designed to improve sustainability should mirror this axiom. It’s also important sustainability policies be scientifically informed by experienced experts. That’s one of the reasons we’re asking Congress for this study. Such an independent study would help clarify sustainability choices we make as a nation. As companies. And as Americans.

In the meantime, we will continue to push for increased recycling, part of our push to enhance the sustainability of plastics.

Hey, it’s my job. And it’s the right thing to do.

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.

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