Orlando, Fla. — U.S. plastic resin makers are out with an ambitious set of goals to end plastics packaging waste in the country in a little more than a generation.
Steve Russell, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council, readily admits the goals are aggressive and might need to be altered over time. But he said it is important for his group and its plastics-making members to put a target date on the goals.
"These are stretch goals. And we are going to get there through innovation and cooperation. I want to stress that technology is going to play a role here. And that means dramatically improved sortation so that we get better bales with better value and lower residuals," he said on a May 9 conference call to discuss ACC's vision during NPE2018 in Orlando.
Specifically, members of the Plastics division at the trade group have a goal of reusing, recycling or recovering all plastics packaging by 2040.
They also revealed an interim goal of having all plastics packaging be recyclable or recoverable by 2030.
And, finally, they want all Plastics division member sites in the United States to participate in the Operation Clean Sweep-Blue program by 2020. That extends to all member sites in North America by 2022.
Operation Clean Sweep is an effort to contain pellets from escaping into the environment. Members report on their efforts, which are released in aggregate, as part of the Operation Clean Sweep-Blue program level.
Make no mistake: Achieving the 2040 goal is a tall order. And Russell acknowledged just that in the conference call.
"One of the things we think is different about this is — and it does give us confidence in setting these goals — is both the rate and pace of innovation change. But also the fact that commitments are being made by members of the plastics value chain to include recycled content in their products," he said. "And those commitments are, themselves, pretty dramatic, and that's a good signal to the industry."
"Yes, they are aggressive," Russell said of the goals. "But we think we can get there."
While 22 years might seem far off, and in many ways it is, the plastics industry certainly faces challenges to meet this packaging recycling, reuse and recovery goal.
Russell said there was internal discussion within the Plastics division about whether or not to even set a target date.
The discussion "quickly came to it's more important to set the goal, signal our direction and then invite partners to work with us and figure out how we are going to get there," he said.
Rick Wagner is global sustainability manager at Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., a resin maker and a member of the Plastics division.
"The other pieces that will support our successful journey to meeting these goals is really the upfront work with those who use plastics to better design packaging so that they are more recyclable, easier to recover," Wagner said.
"The other thing is to use post-consumer recycled material in packaging systems and promoting that. All of that brings value to recycled content. It enables recycling to occur easier, and it makes for a more sustainable recycling marketplace and solution," Wagner said.
Plastics recycling lags recovery efforts for both paper and metals. But even the most successful recycling and recovery efforts in both paper and metal do not hit 100 percent.
There are both logistical and technical challenges that the industry will face in trying to reach the 100 percent goal with plastics packaging
Recycling, while robust and sophisticated in some markets, is virtually nonexistent in parts of the country. Lower populations in wider geographic areas make recovery economically unfeasible. It's simply much less expensive to throw the material away using cheap landfill space.
"One of the tenets of this is that they have to be both stretch and aspirational and while at the same time realistic," Russell said of the goals. "There were voices in favor of extending out. There were voices in favor of not setting a date at least until we're well under way," he said.
"We believe that setting and sharing goals will help to focus those efforts and better align them as we move forward together," Russell said.
ACC sees six areas of focus in achieving the goals, including "designing new products for greater efficiency, recycling and reuse" and "developing new technologies and systems for collecting, sorting, recycling and recovering materials."
The trade group also believes it is important to make "it easier for more consumers to participate in recycling and recovery programs," and expand "the types of plastics collected and repurposed."
Members also believe it is important to align "products with key end markets; and expanding awareness that used plastics are valuable resources awaiting their next use."