Do you recall hearing any news earlier this year from the World Economic Forum in Davos? The annual event attracts some of the world's leading thinkers for discussions on some of our most pressing environmental and economic problems.
One area that received broad attention came from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report “The New Plastics Economy — Rethinking the Future of Plastics,” which stated that by 2050, the world's oceans will have more plastic than fish, by weight. To change the outcome of our current course, the report calls for “a shared sense of direction, to spark a wave of innovation and to move the plastics value chain into a positive spiral of value capture, stronger economics, and better environmental outcomes.”
And to that, SPI says: Amen! Plastic materials, throughout their lifecycle, should be managed as a valuable resource. While end-of-life management is a priority area for the industry, focusing on the management of materials within the gates of our facilities also deserves priority. This is why SPI has developed the Zero Net Waste (ZNW) recognition program for SPI members pursuing maximum materials recovery in manufacturing and operations. The program aims to incentivize businesses to adopt diversion initiatives and enable them to reach those zero net waste goals by providing the tools and resources needed to implement successful programs.
The WEF and SPI have a shared goal, that all plastics are captured and put to their highest and best use. As noted in the report, “plastics have become the ubiquitous workhorse material of the modern economy — combining unrivalled functional properties with low cost.” We need to do better as an industry and modern industrial society in managing its recycling and reuse.
The cornerstone of the Zero Net Waste program is a 100-page manual, which includes real-world, step-by-step tools and resources for companies across the plastics value chain to ensure their plastics and manufacturing byproducts are put to their highest and best use. The manual presents how plastics companies can develop the business case for pursuing zero net waste, how to educate employees on new processes, what kinds of records should be maintained, and how companies can identify the right service providers to reach their goals.
SPI recognizes that absolute zero net waste is, in most cases, generally not attainable. But near zero net waste is. If implemented correctly, SPI's Zero Net Waste manual will enable companies to attain 80 to 98 percent recovery. The program also recognizes that higher levels of success are not achieved immediately, and attaining zero net waste goals takes time, so a process for continual assessment and improvement is a key piece of the program.
Participation in the program is voluntary and currently offered to SPI members only. In order to be recognized as a program participant, companies must complete a two-step qualification and verification process. While the program is not a third-party certification program, it will help companies prepare for third party certification when they choose to take that next step.
The plastics industry needs to collaborate in order to improve recovery and recycling of its waste stream, and at the same time spur and encourage innovation. While the immediate goal of the Zero Net Waste program is to drive the industry toward maximizing diversion of resources into the proper recovery channels, it is our larger goal to challenge businesses to think more broadly about recycled materials. We believe that strengthening the link between the makers of plastic products and recyclers not only benefits recovery, but creates the opportunity for a greater conversation about using more recycled plastics as well.
Kim Holmes is senior director of recycling and diversion for the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington.