Right now, the U.S. Plastics Pact is the most concrete thing happening in the business world to make plastics more circular.
The group includes major consumer goods makers — who are also large buyers of plastics — like Coca-Cola Co. and Unilever.
Launched last year, it has set some aggressive 2025 goals, including having 50 percent of plastic packaging recycled or composted and reaching 30 percent recycled or bio-based content levels.
If the companies can meet them, both of those targets would be huuuuge increases from where we are now.
The Pact is also approaching what one observer calls an "elephant in the room" moment later this year, when it releases a list of plastic packaging it considers "problematic or unnecessary" and that its member companies should stop using.
That list is being closely watched, as you'd expect from a group that includes some of the world's largest buyers of resins for packaging.
Steve Alexander, head of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, sees the list forcing hard decisions since no one will want their material to carry that label.
"The elephant in the room of the Pact is 'problematic and unnecessary,'" he said on a recent episode of APR's Recycled Content podcast. "Those are tough decisions. Everyone is going to be worried about their own packaging streams."
One tough decision I see is how to treat polystyrene packaging.
Several other plastics pacts that started before the U.S. have included PS packaging on their problematic lists, including the first one, the U.K. Plastics Pact.
What made me think of that now was the Aug. 24 announcement from Ineos Styrolution, a large PS and styrenics resin maker, that it is joining the U.S. Pact.
Participation is good, of course. Pact leaders have been calling for more plastic resin companies to join, noting the deep R&D bench those firms can bring.
But I also wonder how that will impact the Pact's decision-making.
Would the U.S. Pact shy away from labeling PS products problematic, breaking with the U.K. Pact and others, if its membership includes a maker of styrenic resins for packaging?
All of the 11 pacts around the world are under the umbrella of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and all of them are developing their own "problematic or unnecessary" lists under EMF guidance.
So far, four pacts are far enough along to publish such a list. Three of them — Chile, Portugal and the United Kingdom — have put PS packaging on the list, to one degree or another. Some groups differentiate between PS and expanded PS.
The U.K. Pact says items on the problematic list are applications or materials for which "there are no practical options, such as better design or smarter recycling systems, which can make them environmentally acceptable."
PS is a packaging material with recycling challenges. EPA figures show that only about 4 percent of PS packaging in the U.S. is recycled, compared with about 30 percent for PET or high density polyethylene bottles.
In my own experience, I see challenges.
If I buy something shipped in protective polystyrene foam packaging, like a new bathroom vanity that was sent to my house in July, I can't put even that clean foam in my curbside bin. I have to drive it an hour each way across the D.C. metro area to the closest recycling center that will take it.
I'm very glad it protects what I'm buying. But my trips across the region definitely feel "problematic" to me, and they give me time to think.
I find myself wondering, as I'm schlepping my foam around the Washington beltway, whether the protective packaging could be made from something more recyclable.
Or why the PS sector can't pay for more drop-off locations and save me the drive, if they want to put a recycling-challenged material like this into the market.
I reached out to Ineos for comment, but the person quoted in the release did not have time to speak with me by my deadline. In the announcement, the company says it's joining the U.S. Pact because it wants to see "a circular economy of plastics brought into a global reality."
A look through our stories shows several talking about Ineos Styrolution's work on recycling, including developing chemical recycling technologies to try to deal with these problems.
Its clearly putting work into recycling. And I'm sure it would naturally argue against including PS on a list of problematic materials and discuss how complex these choices are.
I also reached out to the U.S. Pact. It told me that polystyrene is not excluded from consideration for the list, nor is any other plastic.
It said it's using the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's criteria around problematic or unnecessary packaging "with little modification."
A Pact spokeswoman said it wants to consider a material's functionality, prioritizing functions like food safety vs. marketing. And she said it wants "as many stakeholders as possible at the table" so it can develop meaningful and scalable solutions.
This is a deep dive into how the Pact works, but I think it's valuable.
We don't, in the U.S. right now, have any public, i.e., government driven, process for airing these sorts of decisions.
But recycling is a public good. We spend tax dollars on it, and the Pact right now has taken on a public role. Transparency is key.
As you'd expect, the idea of a "problematic" list of plastics is controversial for some in the plastics industry, highlighted by the American Chemistry Council.
So I think there will be a lot of eyes on what Alexander called the elephant in the room, on what the Pact and its member companies ultimately deem as "problematic or unnecessary" plastic packaging that should be avoided.