Schaumburg, Ill. — Achilles had his heel and companies have a history of making unrealized environmental commitments.
While the U.S. Plastics Pact can't do anything about Greek mythology, the group wants to push a more sustainable future for plastics by keeping companies to their word when it comes to making goals.
For the U.S. pact, one of a dozen similar country-based groups around the world created through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, transparency is a key to creating lasting change, Executive Director Emily Tipaldo said.
"Transparency is a truly key element. For more than a decade, we have seen companies make commitments, and then what happens to them? Do they report on the progress? Sometimes. Do we know if they met them? Sometimes," she said at the recent Plastics Caps & Closures 2022 conference organized by Plastics News in Schaumburg.
"I think what's been an Achilles heel over the past 15 years or so years is companies making commitments and never really hearing anything about it," Tipaldo said. "And then all of a sudden the same company is seemingly making the same commitment again."
To combat this, the pact requires members — called activators — to report their annual progress on four key targets established by the organization. That information is then aggregated and released to the public. These activators include companies all along the plastics value chain, she said, including resin suppliers, converters, consumer product companies, nonprofits, educators and those in the public sector.
The four 2025 targets, Tipaldo said, are inextricably linked: identifying and eliminating problematic or unnecessary plastics; ensuring all plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable; undertaking "ambitious actions" to recycle or compost 50 percent of plastic packaging; and achieving 30 percent recycled or bio-based content in plastic packaging.
"So one thing that we are constantly doing is challenging — particularly the consumer goods companies and retailers as well as the different types of packaging converters who are part of the pact — to really sit down and think about what is truly in your control, if you are truly trying to make an effort toward more sustainable packaging and creating a circular economy for plastic packaging," Tipaldo said.
"It may not be cheap. It may not be easy. But when you think about the decisions that go into how you deliver products to the market, there is a lot, if not most, things that are in the control of those specifying how that product is delivered to the market," she said.
The pacts are able to share learnings, Tipaldo said, but the United States is unique within the network.
"Clearly things are different. I think it's no surprise to you that the U.S. market is a beast, a unique beast in and of itself. And we are unlike most, if not all, other markets today. And that's a point that we are constantly both struggling with and communicating about in terms of the work we're doing. Some things translate across the globe, whereas other things really require a unique U.S. solution," Tipaldo said.
Making good choices early in the package design process is key to successfully being able to recover plastics once they are used, she said.
"Garbage in, garbage out. We need to be designing things correctly if we want to be able to have the value to collect and sort it and then have the demand to use it," Tipaldo said.
Creating a more robust recycling system for plastics ultimately means that there will be winners and losers.
"If we are looking to truly build a circular economy for plastic packaging, we can't expect to cram everything that we have in the system today into this circle and expect it to work," she said.
"We need to be honest with ourselves and realize not all those will be on some sort of circular trajectory. So where do we focus our efforts in terms of materials and formats that we do use to help simplify things?" Tipaldo asked.