We know changes are coming to the U.S. plastics packaging market. That's obvious to packaging sector experts. And that's the biggest reason for the U.S. plastics industry to support the U.S. Plastics Pact.
On June 15, the U.S. Plastics Pact unveiled its "Roadmap to 2025," a national strategy to ensure all plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. The plan aligns with pledges that have been made by big brands and retailers including Coca-Cola Co., Target and Walmart. The plan is supported by nearly 100 corporations, startups, research entities, NGOs, universities, and state and local governments across the plastics packaging value chain, although it can still use some key supporters. More on that in a minute.
But if we take brand owners and retailers at their word, that this time they're really serious about making plastics packaging a sustainable part of their business, then the plastics industry has to get on board.
The U.S. Plastics Pact needs industry support because we can all see what's coming. It's a bit of an oversimplification to say that packaging trends start in Europe and move to North America a few months later. But just a bit.
In 2019, the European Parliament agreed to ban single-use plastic cutlery, cotton buds, straws and stirrers by 2021. Canada followed suit, and now it seems likely the United States is headed in the same direction.
One big difference in the U.S. is that bans might not happen at the federal level (although they might). What we're likely to see instead is a confusing series of state and local bans. That's already starting, just like what happened to single-use plastic bags.
This doesn't need to be a battle, and not all plastics legislation is bad. I really hate it when people frame the plastics debate as the industry vs. the environment. Plastics industry leaders consider themselves to be pro-environment, too. They tend to come at the issues from a different angle: They see themselves as potentially part of the solution, and they want the public to see that plastic products have some advantages over alternatives.
The U.S. Plastics Pact sets forth exactly that path. The 36-page road map provides a plan for hitting ambitious 2025 targets like a 50 percent recycling rate for plastic packaging and an average of 30 percent recycled or bio-based content.
Let's assume Coke and Walmart are serious about their packaging goals. The current U.S. recycling infrastructure isn't robust enough to supply everything they need. Changes are necessary to make recycling economically viable and sustainable. That's where "Roadmap to 2025" comes in.
It calls for steps to boost the recycling rate for bottles made from PET, polypropylene and high density polyethylene to 70 percent by 2025. That's ambitious, but that should be the easiest to achieve; we know how to recycle bottles.
Some tougher goals include hitting a 30 percent recycling rate for PE films and 50 percent for PET and PP thermoformed and injection molded containers.
By the end of 2022, the report said, all of its members would make public commitments to use recycled content that will help reach those goals. Plastics firms and trade groups that have already signed include Amcor, Charter Next Generation, Eastman Chemical, Pretium, PreZero, PureCycle, the Association of Plastic Recyclers and the National Association for PET Container Resources.
That brings me to the missing link: big polyolefin producers and their trade group, the American Chemistry Council. ACC says it welcomes the broad goals of the pact, but it disagrees with the timeline and with language about phasing out "problematic" plastic products.
Unfortunately, if nothing changes, brand owners and retailers aren't going to meet their goals. And while the U.S. Plastics Pact's timeline is aggressive, that's because 2025 is just a few years away.
I hope ACC and more resin suppliers join the pact, because the effort would benefit from their research and development expertise, not to mention their commercial support.
Back in 2018, during NPE week, ACC announced similar goals for making plastics more sustainable. It pledged to make all plastics packaging recyclable or recoverable by 2030 and to reuse, recycle or recover all plastics packaging by 2040. Those seemed very ambitious at the time, but the pace of change is moving even faster than we anticipated.
If you don't think so, just look at Europe, Canada and the rest of the world. The U.S. Plastics Pact doesn't mean the end of plastics. It's a road map to a sustainable future.
Don Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.