Washington — Steve Russell, who is stepping down after 12 years heading one of the plastics industry's two main trade groups in Washington, has a prediction on his way out: Investments in recycling will, in a few years, start to reap rewards for addressing plastic waste challenges.
Russell has led the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council since 2007, giving him a key role in developing the industry's strategy. ACC announced Dec. 5 that he is stepping down in February, a decision Russell said he made for personal reasons.
During his tenure, the resin companies that pay the bills at ACC have ridden a roller coaster. A shale gas boom reinvigorated the industry and sparked huge investments, but that's been followed by growing public worries about plastic.
A few major plastics customers like PepsiCo Inc. and Unilever plc have even responded to those worries by pledging to sharply cut their use of virgin plastic, potentially threatening bottom lines.
But Russell believes the investments in recycling — in both traditional mechanical operations and new chemical feedstock recycling — will start to help turn the corner.
"Whereas today we're talking about deals signed and groundbreakings, in five years' time we'll be talking about the first few years of performance and we'll begin to see the numbers in terms of recovery rates respond accordingly," Russell said.
He said he was "absolutely confident that we will have seen by then measurable reduction" in waste.
"I believe that because at their core what these investments are proving is that materials have value, and where there's value, then the business case for investment and collection exists and the capital markets will step in," Russell said.
He said China's stringent National Sword policy restrictions on imported plastic scrap that came into effect in early 2018 have helped push more investment in U.S. plastics recycling.
"If you look back, say, 24 months, pre-China sword, there wasn't the kind of investment that we see today in both traditional and advanced recycling," Russell said. "Even in the last few months, it has been a steady drumbeat of announcements, including our members and other companies in both mechanical and advanced recycling."
He thinks the market is responding to brand owner commitments for recycled content. That means, though, that collecting more material will become an even more critical challenge.
"Without a doubt, the challenge of the next few years is going to be addressing both post-use recovery rates and advancing quickly the systems and technologies that are going to be needed to achieve our circular economy goals," Russell said.
ACC set ambitious goals last year, to have all plastic packaging reused, recycled or recovered by 2040. But at the moment, plastics packaging is nowhere near that and lags other materials in recycling rates.
Overall, Environmental Protection Agency figures released in November show that plastic containers and packaging had a 13 percent recycling rate in 2017, compared with 73.3 percent for paper and paperboard, 32.8 percent for aluminum, 33.9 percent for glass and 73.1 percent for steel.