America's recycling infrastructure has been a critical component in our successful battle against COVID-19, providing the resources we need to fight the virus and preserving the economy while protecting the environment.
Recycled material serves as a vital feedstock for the manufacture of a wide range of essential products, from bleach-based sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer and antibacterial soap to paper towels and toilet paper and, of course, bottled water and containers for carryout food.
Recycled content also makes up a large portion of packaging — something our socially distanced communities need now more than ever. Every day, hundreds of thousands of essential products arrive at businesses and homes, shipped in packaging made from recycled materials.
But, as the crisis caused by the pandemic rages on, many big name-brand companies who had previously announced great initiatives — great intentions — to use more recycled material, or post-consumer resin (PCR), in their products are now scaling back their sustainability goals.
This is the wrong approach. The lesson to draw from the COVID-19 crisis is that recycling is more important, not less.
The pandemic, and our nation's response to it, exacerbated and accelerated trends already happening in all industries. And recycling is no exception. After all, recycling is not a feel-good charitable effort; recycling is a business. For recycling to work, consumers start the chain by putting their recyclable products in the bin and companies at the end of the chain buy and use that recycled material for new products. That end-of-chain demand drives the entire system. Recycling breaks down when there is no waiting destination for the paper, plastic, glass and metal that consumers want to recycle. If no one wants that material, that's the end of the line and the end of recycling.
Our country used to spend less time thinking about the end destination of recyclable products because a lot of them — not the majority — but a lot went to China where manufacturers accepted bales of U.S. recyclables, sorted them and turned them into finished products. But, the China Sword policy, which banned imports of foreign recyclable material, pushed our industry to change.
Today, nearly all recyclable material has to find new life here at home. And again, we find the stasis of the past clashing with the crisis of the present. Historically, the case for recycled material was a fairly simple one — recycled content, plastic specifically, was less expensive for companies to use than virgin resin. But, today, with an oil glut pushing more petrochemical companies to shift toward plastic, the U.S. has become the cheapest place in the world to make and use virgin resin.
And that means companies — and consumers — are going to have to look beyond price when considering the value of recycling and using recycled content.
Even in these rapidly changing times, some facts remain — a strong and effective recycling chain represents the best available environmental option to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollution, save energy and eliminate ocean plastics.
Post-consumer recycled material is the key ingredient to circularity. When consumers put products in the bin, and when companies buy those products back to repurpose them (rather than continually using virgin resin), we build a more sustainable and less wasteful world.
The American recycling industry is a microcosm of America itself — resilient, innovative and entrepreneurial. Instead of allowing a crisis to force them to back off of sustainability goals, brands should double-down on their pre-pandemic commitments and trust the recycling industry and American consumers to do their parts as well. Together, we will come back stronger. We always do.