Subscribe

By Heather Nortz

PLASTICS Associate, Sustainability and Materials

On Earth Day, environmental issues are at the forefront of our minds. But it’s important to know the difference between initiatives that create real change and those that create unintended consequences for the environment. Such “feel good” solutions can end up causing more and bigger problems.

In the materials industry, a spike of environmentally focused goals has manifested in an increased focus on recycled content usage, product bans and waste-management legislation. With complex systems and many stakeholders to consider, the solutions for preventing waste materials from getting into the environment are rarely straightforward. This complexity makes a common understanding of the subject difficult.

Post-Consumer Recycled Material Mandates

Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) content mandates have become a trend in state legislatures, often specifically targeting plastics. The plastics industry strongly supports the increased use of recycled content. We, too, care about the environment as well as the circularity of the economy. However, problems arise when proposed bills mandate a certain percentage of PCR be used in products without considering the available infrastructure for producing recycled material.

In states such as California and New Jersey, policy has been proposed for 30% PCR to be used in all thermoform plastic containers (think clamshell containers) by 2030, and 35% PCR in thermoforms and rigid plastic containers (think recycling bin material) by 2022. However, neither of these bills have any plans to improve recycling infrastructure, which is critical to the feasibility and enforceability of the bill.

There is not enough PCR available to meet many of these mandates. It is irresponsible to pass legislation that would penalize companies for not meeting unreachable percentages. Supply of PCR will only come when collection, sorting and processing infrastructure can produce larger quantities of non-contaminated plastic that can be turned back into useable material. This prerequisite should be reflected in policies that mandate PCR percentages.

Plastic Product or Material Bans

Product and material bans are also being suggested more frequently. We have seen proposals for Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) bans in Washington, single-use water bottle bans in Maine, plastic bag bans in New York and more.

These bans tend to disregard the reasons why such products and materials came to be in the first place. The plastic bag, for instance, became an alternative to the paper bag in 1965 because of its durability, light weight, low cost and the goal of saving trees. Most plastic products are chosen specifically because of these benefits as well as the material’s malleability and conservation of energy, water and emissions during production as compared to other materials. Single-use plastic products are preferred in some instances because of their convenience and sanitation benefits.

Banning a product because of its material does not mitigate the need for that product. Inevitably, a ban on plastic products, or the plastic itself, will result in regrettable substitutions that do not share the benefits of plastics and will ultimately prove deficient in either functionality, environmental footprint or both. Bans that have been passed into law are running into exactly these problems. Smaller businesses are financially struggling due to higher pricing, alternative/replacement materials are quickly running out of supply and all the while more emissions are being expended due to increased usage of water and energy.

Instead of banning these necessary materials, the plastics industry is scaling up recycling innovations that will both keep more plastic out of the environment and turn single-use bags, EPS containers and other products into like-new virgin resin. What is this game-changing innovation? Advanced Recycling, which is a term describing several types of recycling technologies such as conversion, decomposition or purification that allow molecules to be recycled and converted back into virgin plastic.

The narrative of getting rid of plastic altogether or designating it as toxic in order to remove it from the environment is simplistic and short-sighted. The only solutions that will work are the ones that are long-lasting and don't create more problems than they solve. Let’s turn our attention to enhancing infrastructure that can both keep plastic out of the environment and turn it back into useful products.

Misleading Legislation

A colleague of mine coined the term, “fake-islation” for legislation that has a catchy title and great marketing but won’t actually accomplish what it sets out to do. These types of legislative actions come about when a suggested answer is carried out without taking into account the limitations of current systems or considering the full impact of the proposed actions.

Take the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act as an example. The goal stated in the title is noble; no one prefers to have their waste end up in the environment. However, the proposed policy disregards the very solution that will allow us to accomplish that goal. That solution is advanced recycling. The proposed legislation doesn’t have the strength or direction behind it to accomplish what it claims it will.

PLASTICS, and other trade groups, provide comments on legislation, in order to provide the plastic industry’s perspective. We do so to offer insight into how much of the proposed legislation is feasible, how much is not and why. Instead of taking the simple route and just giving a flat out “no” to a piece of problematic legislation, we say, “We cannot sign on to it in its current form. However, if x, y and z were changed, we would be able to support it.” We all have the same goals of creating a circular economy and keeping our environment clean. But to do that, we must make sure that only effective and positive legislation is being passed.

Conclusion

“Feel good” sustainability initiatives are typically created with good intentions—to reduce our collective environmental footprint, enhance environmentally friendly legislation, etc. But the complexities of the systems people are trying to fix and the unintended consequences that inevitably arise are not always fully considered, leading to larger environmental problems than the ones they were trying to correct.

Be skeptical of what you hear in the media, of solutions that sound too good to be true. And do your research, exposing yourself to all perspectives and determining the facts before taking action.

;