The Association of Plastic Recyclers is launching an effort to use the purchasing power of governments to buy more recycled plastic products and help shore up fragile plastic scrap markets.
APR is working with the Northeast Recycling Council to expand the voluntary Demand Champions program it started in 2017 for the private sector and broaden it to include state and local governments.
The idea is to get government agencies to sign voluntary pledges to increase their purchase of some targeted products using recycled content plastic.
But one of the organizers of the effort acknowledges likely challenges, both from the impact of the coronavirus and because many governments have not focused on recycled content purchasing.
"We need to get government active and they are not," said Lynn Rubinstein, executive director of the Brattleboro, Vt.-based NERC. "We've got to find a way to drive greater demand for those resins."
A few state governments, such as California, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Washington, have effective programs "but they are in such a minority it would stagger you," Rubinstein said in a May 27 webinar organized by APR. "We have to got to get government engaged."
Rubinstein said low plastic prices and the changes in global recycling markets, like China's National Sword import restrictions, are also big challenges.
They hurt the economics of city-run recycling programs, something that more recycled content buying could help mitigate, she said.
"There's a tremendous amount of pressure on residential recycling programs now," she said. "It started with China fence and we've seen more of it with COVID."
"We've seen a huge spike in the cost of communities to offer residential recycling, and at least a piece of that is because of the decline in value of the plastics being sold from those programs," Rubinstein said. "So everything we can do to drive up the value of those materials will have a positive impact."
One state legislative group monitoring plastics issues says recycled content is an emerging policy area for governments.
Jeff Mauk, executive director of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators in Washington, said government procurement bills for recycled content have been introduced in Florida and Illinois.
As well, he said the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution bill also includes minimum recycled content mandates for some plastic products.
Like Rubinstein, Mauk said lawmakers are interested in reducing the financial burdens on local recycling programs, although he said states are looking at mandates, not just voluntary programs.
"Mandating recycled content will create a market and incentives for recycling and will lift burdens off of municipalities and recycling businesses that are not able to sell recyclable waste when virgin material is less expensive," Mauk said.
Rubinstein said the coronavirus pandemic could also be a short-term handicap in getting state governments involved.
"We need the procurement community to get engaged in this, and they are entirely consumed with COVID right now," she said. "While I've had some conversations, nobody can turn adequate attention to this. I'm going to be a cup half-full and say by mid to late summer we'll have moved the needle a little bit and we'll have people begin to sign up."