The plastics industry doesn't have a great track record when it comes to achieving recycling goals. We're good at setting ambitious targets, but not so good at reaching them.
The latest recycling numbers, released earlier this month, seem to hint that we're on that path again.
The U.S. Plastics Pact recently gave what it called a baseline report, with data on where its member organizations were on the start of their path toward a circular economy for plastic consumer packaging. The report gives the 2020 figures, the starting point for the ambitious goals that it has set for 2025.
The data is sobering. According to the report, Pact member companies were using only about 7 percent post-consumer or bio-based content in their plastics packaging in 2020, compared with a 2025 target of 25 percent. The group also said that only 37 percent of the plastic packaging put on the market by the companies was recyclable, reusable or compostable in 2020. The Pact's target is 100 percent by 2025.
Pact member companies, including Coca-Cola, Unilever and Walmart, produce, use or sell about one-third of the plastics packaging used in the United States.
The report also said that the U.S. recycling rate for plastic packaging in 2020 was 13.3 percent. Again, that's well short of the 2025 Pact target of 50 percent.
The Pact, which is a voluntary initiative, said legislation for extended producer responsibility, container deposit return systems and recycled-content mandates will be key achieving these goals.
Let that sink in. The Pact is voluntary, but its members say they can't succeed without government action.
My concern here is that if the government gets involved, the industry could be in trouble.
Rather than pass laws to improve recycling, legislators may be tempted to ban plastic packaging instead. Bans are easier and inexpensive for communities — although probably not for consumers. And much of the public, unfortunately, is inclined to support anti-plastics legislation.
On top of all that, even if states or Congress do manage to pass legislation that will help plastics to become a more sustainable part of a circular economy, it may not be enough.
First, plastics recycling has a serious problem with collection. Even for high density polyethylene and PET bottles — the lowest of the low-hanging fruit — collection rates are currently less than 30 percent. To meet voluntary recycling targets, we'll need a rate of at least 75 percent.
That's according to a presentation by Emily Friedman, recycled plastic senior market editor for consulting firm ICIS, at the Plastics Recycling Conference. She added that just to achieve a 15 percent recycled-content rate in packaging by 2025, the United States will need at least another 145 new mechanical recycling plants. Those are moonshot-type numbers, and I don't see any real evidence that they're within reach.
This situation reminds me of what happened in the 1990s, the last time that plastics were under intense pressure from consumers and brand owners to invest in recycling. In 1991, the industry made a high-profile promise to recycle 25 percent of post-consumer bottles and containers by 1995. That was a moonshot-type number at the time. But just five years later, the industry tried to quietly retreat from the recycling goal, saying "there is nothing magic about 25 percent."
Well, there is something magic about it if you commit to that goal to stop product bans and deselection, and then you fail to achieve it. The industry managed to slip off the hook for a few years, but then marine debris and China's National Sword brought it back again.
In the 1990s, some business leaders gave lip service to being committed to recycling when their commitment was just a marriage of convenience.
But to end on a hopeful note, I am optimistic that plastics can succeed in this new era of circularity. Plastics processors today are prepared to help retailers and brand owners achieve their recycling goals. They can make packaging easier to recycle and use more post-consumer materials, too. But they need a firm commitment from customers that they're going to stick to their goals, even if it costs more sometimes, because that's going to be the cost of continuing to use plastic as a substrate in convenient consumer packaging.
I also believe that this time we know what needs to be done. There's real expertise in corporations, NGOs and universities, even at the highest levels. Sometimes those folks even talk with one another.
Finally, I think that the commitment to sustainability is real this time. Calling for legislative help is a big step that industry tried to avoid in the 1990s. Let's just hope that industry can come together and support a plan that can really work, that legislators are listening, and that it's not too late.
Don Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.