The recent announcement from the U.S. Plastics Pact that its member companies will phase out "problematic" plastics like polystyrene and vinyl in packaging by 2025 may have seemed like a lightning bolt.
The pact and its members, which collectively make or use one-third of the plastics packaging in the U.S. market, announced a voluntary plan Jan. 25 to eliminate 11 problematic materials that they say contaminate the recycling stream.
It's the first big step in the pact's ambitious — some say overly ambitious — plan to have 50 percent of plastic packaging recycled or composted and have 30 percent recycled content by 2025. In a way, the list is low-hanging fruit since the companies in the pact, such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, Walmart and Target, have a lot more control over their material choices than they do over low U.S. recycling rates.
The list got a lot of attention for who the pact members are. But it's not something happening in isolation. There are similar efforts in government. California passed a law, SB-343, last year that puts tougher limits on recyclability labeling and directs the state agency CalRecycle to come up with a list of recyclable materials. Materials not on the list could have a harder time being in curbside collection programs.
It's not clear what CalRecycle could put on the list, but a state advisory panel on recycling last year recommended that only PET and high density polyethylene among plastics be included. Some who follow it think CalRecycle could adopt that panel's list.
As well, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is expected to revise its Green Guides this year, with environmental groups pushing for stronger regulations.
It's all part of the same push: To try to improve the quality of recycled materials by limiting products that have low recycling rates or that are themselves contaminants for plastics with better recycling performance.
Some plastics industry groups that are not in the pact strongly protested the pact's list, saying it lacked scientific rigor or should not restrict business choices. It's clearly a complex topic, and the pact said it will now turn to developing guidance on "circular alternatives."
Critics of the list within the plastics industry predicted companies could have a hard time finding substitutes with the same performance or with the same light weight of plastics.
But others in the plastics industry support the pact's list. The head of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, in a Jan. 25 podcast, argued that the status quo isn't working and the pact represents a chance to make progress.
"We have to change what we've been doing because all of the efforts that have taken place in the recycling plastics arena have simply not resulted in substantial progress in terms of dealing with the sustainability issues relative to plastics packaging," said Steve Alexander, president and CEO of APR. He sits on the pact's advisory council.
That's a key point, that the status quo really isn't working.
Groups like the American Chemistry Council agree more must be done and point to their own plans for mandated recycled content in plastics by 2030 or extended producer responsibility. They argue their longer time frame is more realistic.
One challenge is we've had a long time of doing very little to make any real progress on recycling. Less than 14 percent of all plastics in containers and packaging in the U.S. were recycled in 2018, according to EPA statistics.
And even our best-performing plastics in recycling are well below the 50 percent target the pact has, with PET bottles at about 27 percent and HDPE at around 30 percent.
As I was thinking about this column, I saw an announcement from a European plastics recycling association that said 19 European Union countries will have deposit-return systems in place by 2025, as part of a plan to rapidly ramp up recycling rates. There's nothing on that scale happening in the U.S., at least not yet. I wish there was.
Packaging choices and recycling are complex problems, but to me the larger point is the one made by APR's Alexander, that the efforts to date have "simply not resulted in substantial progress" around plastics recycling. That's what the pact hopes to reverse.
Steve Toloken is a Plastics News assistant managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.