Are we there yet? It's a line that you hear on every long trip with kids.
The typical parent reply is something like, "Not yet, but we're more than halfway," or, "Just a few more hours."
Have you noticed that the answer is never "yes"?
Achieving plastics sustainability is like a long road trip. If you're wondering if we're there yet, then that answer definitely is not yes.
It might be a little unclear to readers exactly when this trip started, because we've been on this journey before and never quite reached the final destination. I'd argue that this latest ride started on May 9, 2018. That's the day — which, coincidentally, was right in the middle of NPE — that the resin supplier members of the American Chemistry Council announced a goal of reusing, recycling or recovering all plastics packaging by 2040.
At the time, we called it an ambitious target, and ACC admitted it was a stretch goal. But then, just a bit more than a year later, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation accelerated the timeline and made it a global goal.
EMF's target was for consumer goods companies and retailers to increase recycled content in their packaging to an average of 25 percent by 2025, compared with the then-current global average of just 2 percent.
And just a year after that, the U.S. Plastics Pact came on board with its plan to achieve the EMF targets in the United States. The pact's goals include having 50 percent of plastics packaging either recycled or composted by 2025, plus using 30 percent recycled or bio-based content in plastics packaging.
So here we are: It's March 2023, and we aren't anywhere close to achieving these goals. Good thing they're all voluntary, right?
I'm kidding about that. Although the goals are voluntary in the United States, that's not true everywhere, and there will be consequences for failure.
We are making progress. We've learned a lot about how to make packaging more recyclable and how to boost use of post-consumer resin in many applications.
There's also a lot of investment happening right now in new capacity to recycle PET, polyethylene film and polypropylene. Chemical recycling may also become a growing part of the solution.
But two big problems remain. The first is collection. Unless we start collecting a lot more plastics and sorting it effectively and cost-efficiently, then we'll never achieve any of these goals.
The second problem is that we're losing consumers. The majority still select plastics because of the cost and convenience, but a growing number don't believe in plastics recycling.
Suzanne Shelton of Shelton Group Inc. recently shared her latest polling, which showed that 49 percent of Americans think the recycling system is broken, and 30 percent don't believe that what they put the recycling bin actually gets recycled.
Alarmingly, that number has doubled in just the last few years. So just as the plastics industry started on its journey to become more circular, consumers started to lose faith.
It's a perception problem, so it can be fixed. But I haven't seen much evidence that anyone will invest the money and effort to fix it. If we're waiting for the government to solve the problem, well, then I'm not sure it's a high priority — that they know how to do it.
One thing is clear: If anyone is expecting the industry to reach those sustainability goals by 2025, then I think we should call ahead and let them know we're going to be late.
Don Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.