Can't win fight against plastic waste without recycling
This was originally posted on The Hill on February 28, 2019.
Recently on Capitol Hill, the plastics industry gathered congressional staff and reporters together to highlight a billion-dollar campaign designed to rid the ocean of plastic. At the event, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) announced the reintroduction of legislation to achieve that same goal. Yet, in order for these well-intended and ambitious initiatives to succeed, it is important that they incorporate a solution that can make the greatest immediate impact on plastic waste: recycling.
Last year in the U.S. alone, more than 5.6 billion pounds of bottles, bags, film and "rigid plastics," such as butter tubs and yogurt containers, were successfully recycled. That's 5.6 billion pounds of material that did not end up in oceans, on roadsides, or in landfills. Plastic recyclers have the capacity to greatly increase that amount. Doing so requires two key initiatives.
First is an investment in recycling infrastructure. With more investment, recycling facilities can sort and utilize a wider variety of plastic more effectively.
Plastic recyclers have the capacity to process far more material than they take in today. When their systems are unable to handle the quantity and quality of collected materials economically, that material ends up in a landfill, starving existing processing capacity and adding to citizen expense. Investments in technology through partnerships with local and regional governments, as well as the federal government, are needed to process more volume, more efficiently. Put simply, the better developed our recycling infrastructure, the less plastic ends up in landfills, with more directed toward reuse — which leads to the second factor.
Increasing the amount of plastic that is recycled also takes greater commitment from big brands to incorporate more recycled material in their products.
Plastic recycling is an essential part of an effective circular economy. Once recovered at households and businesses and then sorted at facilities, plastic is processed into a usable raw material called "postconsumer resin" and sold to companies that have committed to make products with recycled material. This already happens in high volumes in the U.S. With an added boost from consumers demanding more from their favorite brands, far more recycled material can be made available and turned into new packaging.
The first half of the plastics lifecycle chain — the household-level sorting for transfer to local facilities — captures much of the public's attention. The second part, products made from recycled plastic, is just as important.
For generations, brands have tried to appeal to consumers through colors and other features, some becoming synonymous with the brand itself. Incorporating recycled material can sometimes change the look of packaging — and that makes brands nervous. Yet, consumers ultimately decide what to buy. When consumers demand more recycled material in their packaging, the market follows. When they decide that new packaging signals a brand's commitment to the circular economy, that packaging becomes a badge of honor. The consumer's voice makes all the difference.
Infrastructure investment will help boost recycling — and greater use of recycled material by those who choose how to package their products will drive demand for that material. To make a truly meaningful impact on the plastics pollution problem, it is up to all of us — consumers, brands, the recycling industry, as well as the local, state and federal governments — to work together to increase the amount of plastics recycled in this country.
The Association of Plastic Recyclers