More than 60 companies, plastics trade groups and governments in the U.S. unveiled an ambitious national target Aug. 25 that aims to boost packaging recycling and composting rates to 50 percent and substantially increase recycled content.
The U.S. Plastics Pact, which joins seven similar agreements globally, is more a statement of principles than action plan at this point, but one plastics recycling group that has signed on called it the most important step to boost that industry in two decades.
Organizers will spend the next few months crafting an implementation road map that in practical terms aims to scale back the use of virgin plastic in packaging by 2025.
The signers include major buyers of plastics packaging, like Coca-Cola Co. and Walmart Inc., as well as plastics packaging maker Amcor Ltd. and industry groups such as the Association of Plastic Recyclers, the National Association for PET Container Resources and groups for beverage and consumer products makers. Environmental groups have also joined.
APR President and CEO Steve Alexander, who sits on the pact's advisory council, called it the "single most important effort to address the growth and sustainability of plastics recycling in the past 20 years."
"This effort will ensure that brand companies will be publicly held to achieve the sustainability commitments they have made," he said. "There has never been another program like this."
An executive with The Recycling Partnership, one of the lead organizers, said participants believe a transformational, rather than incremental, approach is needed.
"We hold no bones that this is an ambitious set of targets," said Stephanie Kersten-Johnston, director of innovation at the Falls Church, Va.-based group. "I don't think this group would be coming together if we didn't believe we've got to make progress. Whether or not we'll get to the target is obviously a very big question."
Besides the Recycling Partnership, the U.S. agreement is being administered by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), which operates the other plastic pacts worldwide, as well as the World Wildlife Fund. Progress will be reported yearly through a WWF website. In some ways, the pact builds on commitments many of the companies made individually as part of EMF's New Plastics Economy project.
While implementing plans will be worked out in coming months, the pact calls for signatories to commit collectively to four targets by 2025:
• Fifty percent of plastic packaging either effectively recycled or composted.
• Thirty percent recycled content or responsibly sourced bio-based content in plastic packaging.
• All plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable.
• Development of a list of problematic plastic packaging to be eliminated by 2025.
They are clearly ambitious targets when you consider that U.S. government figures show that only 14.7 percent of all plastic in containers and packaging was recycled in 2017.
The most widely recycled plastic packaging in the U.S., the PET beverage bottle, has a nationwide recycling rate of only around 30 percent.
Similarly, recycled content has a large gap to jump. EMF estimated that recycled content in plastic packaging averaged four percent globally in 2018, although in some specific products it's much higher.
NAPCOR, which represents the PET bottling industry, said it believes the groundwork exists to achieve the goal for its sector.
"At NAPCOR, our focus is on PET, and with that, our industry has a strong foundation to achieve these ambitious goals," said NAPCOR Executive Director Darrel Collier. "Yes, it is a stretch goal."