UPDATED — Multiple levels of the plastics industry will need to work together to find innovative solutions to the issue of plastic waste, according to a panel of industry experts at the 2015 Plastics News Executive Forum.
“Less than half of packaging is diverted from landfills,” market veteran Alan Blake said at the event, Feb. 4-6 in Lake Las Vegas, Nev. “There's a big opportunity out there.”
Blake is executive director of PAC NEXT, a Valencia, Calif.-based trade group that represents more than 130 packaging firms.
Lightweighting of plastic bottles has reduced landfill waste by 24 million pounds over the past two years, according to David Clark, vice president of safety, sustainability and environment for Australia-based packaging giant Amcor Ltd. Even something as simple as a new design for strawberry packaging can produce results, lowering landfill rates by 700,000 pounds per year.
Amcor uses 80 million pounds of recycled PET and high density polyethylene per year, but even so, Clark added that processors “have to consider the right material for the right application.”
Susan Robinson has a great view of the plastic waste topic as federal public affairs director for solid waste giant Waste Management Inc. of Houston.
“Plastic recycling rates are growing,” she said. “But the pinch point is the recycling facility.
“It takes a lot of equipment and labor to sort material, and there are challenges with flexible film and flexible packaging,” Robinson added. “We need to keep our eyes on the prize — that the ultimate goal is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not just recycling.”
She also said that progress is being made in pyrolysis, fermentation and other methods that can divert plastics waste from landfills.
Dow Chemical Co. — a leading global materials firm based in Midland, Mich. — also has been active on the plastic waste front. The firm has worked with the American Chemistry Council to promote the recycling of PE film and also has been involved with Project Reflex, a U.K.-based program aimed to create “a circular economy for flexible packaging,” according to Jeffrey Wooster, the firm's global sustainability leader.
Dow has worked to develop PE grades for standup pouches for food applications. The pouches can replace paperboard containers, Wooster said, resulting in 90 percent less post-consumer solid waste.
In California, Dow currently is involved with an energy bag pilot project, in which non-standard recycling products can be placed in purple garbage bags which are then converted into synthetic fuel via pyrolysis.
But even with the progress made, Wooster said that the plastics industry needs to continue to promote these positive steps.
“Plastics are good for sustainability, but we have an identity crisis,” he added. “People think we're bad — but we're really good.”