As the Environmental Protection Agency moves ahead on developing a new national recycling strategy, there's a surprising push coming from industry groups: They're urging EPA to set targets for recycled content in plastic products.
Companies in the waste and recycling industries are lining up behind recycled content for plastics, and the Plastics Industry Association is making public comments to EPA and in other forums supporting the idea. One plastics lobbyist is calling it a shift in industry thinking.
Environmental groups have long pushed for laws mandating recycled content, but it's never been much of a policy priority in Washington. Now, with California and several state governments moving that way, some industry groups are asking EPA to get involved.
The National Waste and Recycling Association took the most detailed position. It wants EPA to set a national goal of 30 percent recycled content for plastics by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030.
NWRA, which represents private sector recycling and waste management companies, suggested that the federal government works to set recycled-content targets for all materials, not just plastics.
But it singled out plastics by urging EPA to set the specific targets of 30 and 50 percent. For other materials, it only wants EPA to study the issue and work with impacted groups.
"For too long, recycling has been focused on increasing supply with scant attention paid to demand," NWRA said. "One result has been wild fluctuations in commodity prices. By encouraging recycled content, demand will be established leading to greater market stability."
There's also a shift within the plastics industry, executives say. The Plastics Industry Association told EPA in formal comments Oct. 1 that its member companies "welcome discussions about effective public policies that strive to encourage" use of recycled content.
As well, its top lobbyist went further in comments Oct. 22 at the Global Plastics Summit, a virtual event sponsored by the association and IHS Markit, saying that industry thinking is shifting.
"As an industry, [one policy area] we've moved closer to accepting and actually promoting is recycled-content requirements," said Matt Seaholm, vice president of government affairs for the Washington-based association. "On a number of fronts, there's an accepting number of companies and industries that can say, 'Alright, PCR [post-consumer recycled] requirements are a good place for us to focus, because if there's an end market, then the investment will follow.'"
It's a policy approach getting studied in more state legislatures.
In August, California passed a law requiring 50 percent post-consumer recycled content in plastic beverage bottles by 2030, which some are calling the toughest in the world. New Jersey state legislators are actively considering a bill and other states are studying it.
"New Jersey is a good example where there's a PCR requirement bill moving through that legislature right now," Seaholm said, "Broad agreement, OK, this could be something that can be done, but let's make sure it's done at a rate that sustainable as well as attainable right now."
He said industry is concerned about laws that would either set targets that are too aggressive and result in deselection of plastics, or that cannot be met because the recycled material is not available.
A senior executive at Berry Global Group Inc., one of the largest plastic packaging makers in North America, also urged industry colleagues at the GPS event to consider the previously "taboo" topic of regulation as a way to overcome the economic hurdles recycling faces from the low cost of virgin plastic.
"Obviously, the economics do create a hurdle, and that hurdle is real," said Rob Flores, vice president of sustainability at Berry. "I'll just go ahead and say there's opportunity for regulation. Perhaps that would have previously been taboo.
"Quite frankly, I think there is an opportunity for regulation to … influence these economics," he said. "I think it's critical to use more PCR, we just have to figure out how to make that work and how to make those economics work."
Berry is a prominent member of the plastics association. It did not comment directly to EPA's recycling strategy rulemaking.