Meeting the ambitious goals of the new U.S. Plastics Pact will require major changes in packaging design and recycling, according to the head of the organization.
Emily Tipaldo, executive director for the pact, thinks it could, for example, require doubling the recycling rate for plastic bottles and asking hard questions about whether companies should keep using resins with poor track records around sustainability.
The pact was formed in August by consumer product brands — and major buyers of plastic — such as Coca-Cola Co., Unilever US and Clorox Co., who see it as a way to find common ground at a pre-competitive level to meet ambitious plastics goals that they have publicly set.
In a March 17 presentation at the Plastics News Executive Forum, Tipaldo told the industry audience that the pact sees itself as hoping to bring broad changes.
The effort is voluntary, and some environmental groups have asked how much a voluntary undertaking like this can do when some of its goals, such as higher recycling rates, seem certain to require new laws.
But groups like the Association of Plastic Recyclers have said it could have a major impact.
Tipaldo said the pact came together out of the "recognition that there's a vacuum at this point in how you would even achieve a circular economy for plastics."
At its August launch, it announced some big goals for plastic packaging, all by 2025. They include a 50 percent recycling and composting rate, 30 percent recycled or bio-based content, having 100 percent of plastic packaging be reusable, recyclable or compostable, and eliminating "problematic" plastic packaging.
When you consider the gap between those goals and where plastics recycling is now in the U.S. — the overall U.S. recycling rate for plastics in containers and packaging is 13.6 percent — there's a lot of ground to make up.
"We're under a lot of pressure because our timeline is crunched," Tipaldo said.
Its 89 member companies, government agencies and environmental groups plan to release a detailed road map by the end of June and then by year-end publish their list of "problematic or unnecessary" plastics packaging.
While the road map is still being worked out, some packages will likely need to get well above a 50 percent recycling rate to compensate for lower rates for other types of plastics packaging and keep the average at 50 percent, she said.
"We're still in the early days of gelling around this within the pact, but my personal belief is that we need to look at like 70 percent rates for bottles," she said. "We need to maximize our collection and recycling rates on bottles, which probably means we need to be open to considering deposit return systems in addition to extended producer responsibility."
Bottles are the most recycled types of plastic packaging, with PET and high density polyethylene bottles each having a national rate of about 30 percent. But states with container deposits generally have bottle recycling rates of 60-90 percent.
Part of what motivates the pact, Tipaldo said, is a sense that plastic packaging is likely to face much stricter regulation.
She said the U.S. pact, which is one of 10 globally operated under the umbrella of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is the only pact in a country without new national rules aimed specifically at reducing plastic waste. But pact members feel that may be changing.
"I think there's … a sense in the U.S. that we may not go on that much longer without some regulation around either a circular economy or though things like extended producer responsibility, like more recyclable packaging, so how do we get ahead of that and start to move in that direction preemptively," Tipaldo said.