I'm glad that Washington is debating plastics recycling. Some readers will be skeptical, but municipalities are facing difficult issues when it comes to recycling, and plastics is usually portrayed as the villain.
With some effort and improved education, the industry could show that plastics have been miscast in the role. Having a clear national policy could help.
The debate could go in a number of interesting directions, and it is important that policymakers get it right.
Banning plastic products is the worst idea, but I understand why it's on the table. Look at any list of most common products collected during beach cleanups. You'll see far too many single-use plastics that end up as litter instead of being recycled or disposed of correctly. Policymakers are tempted to just ban the biggest offenders.
On top of that, there's the persistent problem of consumers trying to recycle plastic products that have no value and no recycling end market. But I don't blame consumers. They're trying to do the right thing.
Who is really to blame? First, waste haulers and communities aren't always clear about what they want in recycling bins. Brand owners also contribute to the problem by putting recycling symbols and labels on products that, in reality, create headaches for communities and recyclers.
Labels and claims about recyclability need to be updated to reflect actual conditions. It isn't enough to say that, theoretically, a product or package could be recycled. Especially not now, with brand owners making high-profile promises to make all of their products recyclable within a few years.
If brand owners think they are meeting those goals but the evidence shows that they're actually just creating tons of litter and trash, it will reflect poorly on the plastics industry and invite more bans, taxes and restrictions.
The time has come for a serious discussion about getting rid of the chasing arrows or triangle symbols on most plastics products and packaging. Let's start with products where the resin code plays no useful role, and instead serves only to confuse or dupe consumers.
One alternative could be a label with more information, rather than less. A model could be the garment industry, which has tags that tell consumers not just how to clean the product, but also what to avoid.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of the critical role that plastics play in protecting public health. But plastics are putting a financial burden on communities, and in this election year, it looks like legislators in Washington are motivated to place that on industry instead.
Finally, let me make it clear that while the plastics recycling infrastructure has major problems, I'm not saying that plastics recyclers are in peril. Recyclers have one big problem, namely low virgin resin prices. But it is flat wrong to say that plastics recycling is a "whopping failure." There is plenty of demand for high-quality recycled resin and products, and that demand is growing. Don't write off plastics recycling, or imply that it is dying. That is unfair and unconstructive.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.
Plastics News editorial cartoon by Rich Williams. Cartoons are available for purchase at www.plasticsnews.com/data-lists/cartoons