Austin, Texas — Plastics recycling, really all recycling, has long-been commonly measured by the amount of material diverted from landfills and incineration. But increasingly, the business is being judged by greenhouse gas emission impacts.
Both companies and municipalities are placing a greater emphasis on GHG emissions as the evaluate the effectiveness of recycling efforts, said Scott Pasternak, department manager at Burns & McDonald, a recycling and solid waste consulting firm.
"In terms of what to expect from corporations, there's significant focus on sustainability and companies are really being held accountable for so many aspects of what they do," Pasternak said at the recent Resource Recycling Conference in Austin.
"Greenwashing radars are really high. Only talking about sustainability is no longer good enough. And your industry, from a solid waste and recycling perspective, is being held accountable for that," he told the crowd. "We also must realize that this next decade is going to reshape our companies and the entire [recycling] industry.
"Companies are now really looking at this issue as a major criteria in their boardrooms. CEOs are being held accountable from an ESG [environmental, social and governance] perspective," Pasternak said.
Susan Fife-Ferris is director of solid waste planning and program management for Seattle Public Utilities. Her work includes the city's recycling efforts.
"Historically, we live in a linear economy. We take it, we make it, we use it and then we dispose of it," she said. "We're striving to go to a circular economy. But historically, we have looked at emissions from sector-based position.
"When you do that, you are looking at what you are doing locally and materials management doesn't really register much on the carbon emissions thing. But if you look at it from a consumption basis, what are you importing to your area, then all of a sudden material management becomes really important," she said.
Using a consumption-based approach, products and packaging account for 37 percent of U.S. emissions from U.S. sources and 44 percent of U.S. emissions from all global sources, Fife-Ferris said.
"Materials management truly is climate action," said Joe Bontempo, chief of staff The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit group that works to increase residential recycling volumes around the country.