Lately, I've been seeing some big steps forward in the effort to make plastics the most sustainable packaging material.
It started in May, with the American Chemistry Council's announcement of a goal to reuse, recycle or recover all plastics packaging by 2040.
Last week, more companies jumped on board with even more aggressive goals. On Oct. 29, 290 companies and groups, including some of the world's largest consumer goods makers and plastics packaging firms, signed on to a plan from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Its goals include:
• Eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastics packaging and move from single-use to reusable packaging models.
• Ensure that 100 percent of plastics packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled or composted by 2025.
• Significantly increase the amount of plastics that are reused or recycled into new packaging or products.
Many of the companies announced specific goals of their own. SC Johnson, for example, said it would triple the amount of recycled content in its plastics packaging. PepsiCo Inc. said it will use 25 percent recycled content in all its plastics packaging by the middle of the next decade.
I'm not pretending that the plastics companies and brand owners are leading the charge to make plastics more sustainable. It's closer to the truth to say they're being pushed, pretty hard, to do the right thing.
The bag bans that swept the globe a few years ago were just the beginning. Now the European Union has proposed a sweeping ban on many single-use plastics products starting in 2021. And the United Kingdom — led by a Conservative Party government, mind you — plans to introduce a national tax on all plastics packaging that does not include at least 30 percent recycled content, starting in 2022.
Bans and taxes are likely coming to the United States, too. Watch what's going on in New Jersey, which this year seriously debated a ban on many single-use plastics.
It's good news that plastics industry leaders aren't just putting their heads in the sand or battling bans by repeating the stale argument that plastics products are better than alternatives. People who say that are missing the point. No one is proposing laws that require consumers to replace single-use plastics with paper, metal or glass. The push is to eliminate single-use plastics. Environmentalists know that resin manufacturers are gearing up to make more virgin plastics, and they want to make sure that won't mean a massive increase in litter and marine debris.
I'm happy to see progress, but I feel the need to remind everyone that setting a goal to make plastics easier to recycle won't fix this issue. Neither will pledges to use more recycled content, although that should help a lot.
To meet all these aggressive goals, we'll have to see big improvements in recycling technology, materials science, product design and consumer attitudes. And, putting it bluntly, the plastics industry will need help from local governments, too — ironically, the same people who have been trying to ban single-use plastics. Used plastics need to have enough value so local municipalities will invest in the infrastructure to collect them for recycling.
To make progress, there needs to be more momentum behind plastics recycling and less behind product bans on the state and local level.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.