On America Recycles Day Nov. 15, there was a lot of discussion about the challenges facing plastics recycling in the United States.
And there are many hurdles, from technical and market issues to government policy.
The headline is that collection was down last year: Plastic bottles collected for recycling dropped 2.4 percent in 2016 in the United States, reversing 25 years of growth, noted Steve Russell, the head of the American Chemistry Council's plastics division, in his ACC blog posted on the recycling day.
Russell ran through some of the technical and market hurdles, like the need for better sortation, increased contamination as more cities use single-stream curbside collection, and the hit that recycling is taking globally as the huge Chinese market cracks down on imported scrap.
As well, he highlighted potential positives, such as demand growing from businesses using more recycled plastic in products as part of their corporate sustainability goals.
He ended his blog optimistically: "I think a compelling case can be made that recent corporate goals and technological innovation will continue to drive recycling on a course for growth."
But to me, that's only half the picture.
It's an important half, to be sure: There's a lot of innovation going on in the plastics recycling space.
But a focus on markets and technology ignores the key role of government policy — or lack of policy — in driving more recycling.
In my opinion, the U.S. continues to be in a kind of straightjacket of our own making on plastics bottle recycling — our bottle recycling rates lag "world-class" levels.
A Nov. 17 report from the United Nations Environment Programme, two days after the festivities around America Recycles Day, touted government efforts worldwide to expand bottle deposit systems.
The U.N. noted that the United Kingdom is the latest, but it said regional governments in Scotland and Wales also are considering deposits.
As well, three Australian states have announced plans and smaller countries including Estonia and Lithuania have implemented deposit systems in recent years, UNEP said.
The pressure to do something is apparently strong enough in the U.K. that Coca-Cola's head of sustainability for Europe recently took the surprising step — surprising for a beverage industry executive — and told a House of Commons committee that the company supported bottle bills there.
"We see from those other schemes in other countries that you can get high 80s and low 90 [percent] recovery rates on plastic packaging," said Nick Brown, the executive with Coca-Cola. "There's no reason in the U.K. we shouldn't be striving for a scheme that achieves those kinds of outcomes."
The UNEP report said a deposit system in the U.K. could push plastic bottle collection rates from the current 57 percent to 80 or 90 percent, a rate seen in Germany and Sweden, which also have bottle bills.
By comparison, what was the plastic bottle recycling rate in the United States last year? It was a disappointing 29.7 percent. It's hovered around that level in recent years.
That, to me, is why the debate in the U.S. is in a straightjacket.
We seem to accept that a 30 percent bottle recycling rate is fine, when clearly, we could and should do a lot better. Other countries do.
A German PET packaging industry last year praised bottle bills as being responsible for that country's 90-plus percent PET bottle recycling rate.
I caught up with Steve Alexander, the president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, after a talk he gave at an event in Washington, D.C., on America Recycles Day.
APR is very active in promoting recycling. (And to be clear, Russell's group within ACC does a lot of good work in the space as well.) APR itself is mainly a technical and market demand-oriented group, not a political one.
Alexander suggested right now the fight in the U.S. is about preserving the recycling systems we have, rather than expanding them.
"We haven't had an engaged dialogue about, say, deposit programs really in a proactive sense since the late 1970s, early 80s," he said. "Now what we're seeing is going the other way. Now the industry is just trying to maintain what's there."
APR has a nuanced position on bottle bills.
As Alexander explained it to me, APR supports expanding existing bottle bills to cover containers like non-carbonated drinks or water, and not just soft drinks. And APR opposes any rollback of existing bottle bills.
But as Alexander notes, "that's where we stop."
To me, that's where the straightjacket comes in.
UNEP says that drinks makers have long resisted deposit-return schemes. They play a large role in limiting the plastics industry's options here, in my opinion.
Some deposit opponents say it's a tax — although I think one of the few taxes you can have completely refunded to you — or there are more cost-effective ways to boost recycling, like better education and more curbside options.
But if you look at the stagnation of the plastics bottle recycling rates in the U.S. — 30 percent — and how much we lag other countries that get 80-plus percent, I'm skeptical that education or better curbside collection or those sorts of initiatives will ever get us where we should be.