Emily Tipaldo's take on making plastics sustainable is that, at times, it's been "too much of a good thing," with society left struggling to manage the waste.
"As with many things in life, you can have too much of a good thing," said Tipaldo, who has been executive director of the U.S. Plastics Pact since 2020. "Plastics are a great example. Plastics have enabled many breakthroughs and opportunities."
Benefits and breakthroughs noted, she believes some downsides haven't gotten enough attention.
"We have also taken the use of plastics too far in some instances, without an understanding of the additives being used and the environmental and human health impacts of their use," she said.
In her job, Tipaldo guides the pact and its member companies on strategies to boost recycling, increase use of recycled materials and limit hard-to-recycle plastics from getting into the marketplace.
"Managing the plastics that are already in commerce and in our waste streams and environment is one part of the challenge with plastics' sustainability," she said. "Calling into question the unlimited and ever-growing production of plastics is another challenge with plastics' sustainability."
Tipaldo began her plastics career in 2009 doing administrative legal work for the American Chemistry Council, before being promoted to regulatory and technical director roles and then, in 2014, becoming the director of plastic packaging and consumer products for ACC's plastics division.
She said she transitioned within ACC from chemicals management to plastics because she wanted to work more with downstream companies like processors and consumer goods firms, as concerns about plastic waste were rising.
"Marine debris and the connections to plastic pollution were just coming to the forefront when I took over the role in the plastics division," Tipaldo said. "I saw lots of opportunities for learning and collaboration within the industry."
She left ACC in 2018 to work for consulting company More Recycling, before being named executive director of the U.S. Plastics Pact shortly after it was founded in 2020. The U.S. pact is part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's global network of plastic pacts. It counts large consumer brands and retailers among its members, as well as some packaging makers, recyclers and industry trade associations.
Its member companies control a significant share of packaging. The pact estimates it represents about 33 percent of plastic packaging on the U.S. market, defined as products within the scope of its work.
Tipaldo's job has been to help those companies work toward goals like having 30 percent recycled or bio-based content in their plastic packaging by 2025 or finding ways to dramatically increase plastics recycling rates to 50 percent.
"I have had the opportunity to learn from companies that produce plastic resin, to those that convert plastics into packaging and products, to those that buy and use plastic packaging, and down through the value chain, in addition to learning from nonprofit, government and academic stakeholders," she said.
Earlier this year, the pact admitted that it would miss some of its key 2025 targets. But in an email interview discussing her career, Tipaldo said she still sees value in the learning that comes from pushing forward, even when the results may not look like a complete success.
"For example, lots of pilots and potential solutions have been tried and tested when it comes to recycling flexible films," she said. "Millions of dollars have been spent in the name of piloting solutions. The failures of various aspects of these projects are instructive and have provided valuable lessons.
"Just because something is a failure in the sense that whatever was piloted is not verbatim 'the' solution, like what's been tried with curbside collection and material recovery facility sortation of flexible plastic packaging, it doesn't mean it was done for naught," she said. "It is so interesting to me to see how different people and companies interpret the results of things."
She said her work has made it clear that organizations need strong staff pushing these issues.
"Dedicated people are at the heart of furthering sustainability work," Tipaldo said. "Internal champions continue to incubate and drive the real tough heart of furthering sustainability work that is happening within companies to develop strategies, implement projects and get involved in collaborative efforts."
Tipaldo said she counted among her mentors current and former staff from ACC, including Karyn Schmidt, senior director of regulatory and technical affairs; Steve Russell, former head of the plastics division; former ACC lawyer Sarah Brozena; Leslie Hulse, former assistant general counsel of ACC; and Nina Butler, CEO of Stina Inc., which used to be known as More Recycling.
In one sense, Tipaldo's career path has taken her from working for ACC to helming a group that has occasionally sparred publicly with the plastics industry.
When the plastics pact released list of "problematic" plastics to phase out in packaging, including PVC and expanded polystyrene, ACC pushed back. ACC argued the pact's problematics list was based more on ideology than science, but the pact said it was trying to eliminate packaging materials that lacked a clear path to recycling success.
Today, Tipaldo said she's "very worried" about the environment and said companies have a great deal of responsibility to protect the environment. She would like to see more from the plastics industry. "The plastics industry should be more transparent and should walk its talk," she said. "Actions will forever speak louder than words."
And she'd like industries to shift their product development toward reduction of emissions and toxins, away from petrochemicals and in the direction of biomaterials. "For example, developing product concentrates so there is no need to transport water, or developing biomaterials to cut out the need for caustic, petrochemical-derived materials," Tipaldo said.