Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the plastics industry dodged what probably would have been its biggest political challenge this year: a November ballot referendum in California asking voters to put a 1-cent fee on single-use plastic packaging to fund recycling and cleanup.
Voters will now likely see that question on statewide ballots in November 2022, after the pandemic delayed attempts this year to collect enough signatures to put it in front of voters.
If I were a plastics industry leader, I would treat it as an "opportunity" that shouldn't be squandered. What do I mean by that?
The industry should use the time to put together a realistic plan with real financing mechanisms to show what it's willing to do to raise recycling rates, fund infrastructure improvements and better deal with some of the other environmental waste issues in front of it. Call it the plastics industry environmental platform 2.0.
For starters, industry trade associations should advocate for a fee, tax or whatever you want to call it on single-use packaging to raise the kinds of money organizations say is needed to build up our recycling infrastructure.
Or if that's a nonstarter, figure out what kind of extended producer responsibility program the plastics industry could get behind to put in place industry-run systems that will begin to move us toward the levels of plastics recycling we should be having.
Right now, the U.S. recycles only about 15 percent of the plastic we use in containers and packaging, the Environmental Protection Agency says. And the most recycled plastic packaging in the U.S., our superstars of PET and high density polyethylene bottles, only clock in at about 30 percent. Europe, by comparison, recycles 60 percent of its PET bottles — credit container deposits — and many countries there have much higher plastics packaging recycling rates because they have more focused government policy around it.
This industry plan should also include specific commitments for using recycled plastic in a wide range of products.
California's legislature passed a bill last month, with industry support, to set the world's strictest recycled content requirements for PET bottles worldwide, if it's signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
It's that kind of commitment that the industry should look at much more broadly. Some of those commitments are already happening from consumer product makers in the U.S. Plastics Pact and the voluntary commitments big brand owners are making as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy project.
But broad commitments around using recycled plastic should be part of a new plastics industry plan.
Right now, estimates say we're in the range of 5 percent of recycled plastic in our packaging. To meet brand owner commitments over the next five years, some analysts have said that average needs to get to above 20 percent — a huge jump in a short time.
Two of the industry's recent recycling reports, for film and nonbottle rigid containers, both noted that more recycled content would create a pull and boost demand, helping sustain markets and compete with low-cost virgin plastic.
The industry's main political offering thus far is its participation in the Recover Act, a bipartisan bill in Washington that would include $500 million over five years for funding improvements in recycling for all materials, not just plastics.
It's a start and a recognition that the problem is national in scope. But with conservative estimates saying you need at least $9 billion to start to fix recycling, it's only a modest start.
Plastics Industry Association CEO Tony Radoszewski recently wrote an op-ed in our pages talking about the Recover Act, but the industry needs to think bigger. Government budgets will be even more strained coming out of the coronavirus pandemic. City governments have been some of the biggest supporters of doing more, since they and taxpayers are hurt by poor markets for recycled plastic.
Rather than argue that general tax dollars should fund recycling infrastructure upgrades, industry should figure out a funding plan based on fees on the packaging.
You could collect those at the wholesale level, similar to a plan that the American Chemistry Council floated last year in California that would have applied to all packaging materials, not just plastic. These fees could be material neutral. Europe, taking it a step further, is talking about taxes on virgin plastic.
The industry in the U.S. needs to figure out what it can get behind to have a plan that it can take to the public and say, "Here's what we're willing to do to pay for it."
Right now, the industry's commitments are very general. ACC's goal of having all plastic packaging reused, recycled or recovered by 2040 is so far into the future, there's a risk of it being a goal without any meaning. I'd put a few other things in this industry platform.
The industry should endorse bottle bills nationwide as a statement of their importance, and it should make a clear statement that chemical recycling that turns waste plastics into fuel shouldn't be called recycling. That should be limited only to efforts that take waste plastics and turn it back into new plastics.
The industry should also get behind stronger pollution controls over pellet loss and support something that includes pellet containment regulations in federal or state law, as Texas environmental authorities are now starting. Of course you can ask who am I to write this. I would be not responsible for building the industry coalitions needed to come up with a plan like this.
But I've covered these issues for Plastics News. I see how our current recycling systems aren't working like they should, and I've seen how plastics recycling has not made any real progress in years.
If the best that can be done for plastic packaging is a 30 percent recycling rate, for PET bottles, it's hard to make a credible argument to the public that plastics recycling can work at any kind of broad scale. It works adequately — but not great — for PET and HDPE bottles in the U.S., but that's about it.
As an example, I recently tried to recycle a good amount of expanded polystyrene foam that came as protective packaging for some bathroom remodeling. My curbside program in Virginia won't take it, so my only options were driving an hour each way to the EPS Industry Alliance office in Maryland or paying to mail it to a company that will take it. I did both on a few projects, but that's not a viable recycling program.
Plastics are great materials for their intended uses protecting or packaging a product, but their low cost to manufacture and complexity is too often a huge problem with end-of-life disposal.
I've seen lawmakers who have written legislation the plastics industry vehemently opposes acknowledge that point, that the materials have value but that we're not being honest about the end-of-life problems.
It's a complex issue. The plastics industry rightly points out that a 1-to-1 replacement of plastics with other materials could actually result in a higher environmental impact. But to me that's not an excuse to have such a low recycling rate and to waste so much material that we're basically pulling out of the ground as a fossil fuel and hurting the climate.
As well, some groups argue we can't recycle our way out of the problem, and we should look much more seriously at reusable packaging models where they make sense. I can see that point.
But here's my bottom line, my thought experiment for plastics: If the industry is going to argue to the public that recycling is a viable option for end-of-life plastics packaging — a big part of its political platform now — it needs to come with a much more detailed plan on what it's willing to do to pay for that and put recycled content much more into the mix.
Toloken is a Plastics News assistant managing editor based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.