3. Single-use plastics are the focus of a lot of attention these days. Some have proposed bans or taxes. Are there betters solutions?
Russell: Yes, there are better solutions, and many of them are underway or in practice right now. Some of these, we can all take part in, such as only taking a straw when you need one, bringing a reusable bag or bottle with you when you can, and remembering to recycle every day.
But it seems to us that attacking the broad category of “single use” plastics is over-reach. Certain plastic products are specifically designed to be used once (or for a short time) to help promote health and sanitary conditions (think bandages, contacts, personal hygiene). Another category—plastic food packaging—helps keep our food clean and safe, and extends freshness. And because plastic is both strong and lightweight—it helps conserve resources and reduce packaging waste. Plastics help us ship more product with less packaging material than many alternatives, and plastic packaging cuts down on transportation fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions, and waste.
If we replaced plastics with alternatives, as some have suggested, we’d lose these important benefits. A 2016 study by Trucost, Plastics and Sustainability, found that replacing plastic with alternatives in packaging and consumer products could raise environmental costs nearly fourfold. Another study showed that replacing plastic packaging with other materials would increase the amount of packaging generated in the United States by 55 million tons annually, and would increase energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by 82% and 130%, respectively. So banning and replacing plastics even in “single-use” applications clearly isn’t the answer.
Instead, we believe people should be able to enjoy the economic and environmental benefits of plastic by dramatically accelerating the reuse, recycling and recovery of post-use plastics. Work underway today will allow us to improve sortation and convert more used plastics into a range of valuable outputs that can be used as fuels and feedstocks for new manufacturing.
4. Are mixed and multi-material plastics still generally viewed as unrecyclable and is anything being done about that?
Russell: There’s a lot of innovation taking place in this area. ACC’s Plastics Division is leading an industry collaborative on to recover more flexible film packaging, particularly multi-material pouches. The collaborative calls itself Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF), and its latest findings show that automated sorting technologies in use today can be optimized to capture flexible plastic packaging. MRFF is hopeful this will lead to the creation of a new stream of recovered materials (e.g.., multi-layer packaging) while reducing contamination in other streams. Other developments, such as solvents (e.g., PureCycle Technologies and CreaSolv), additives and compatibilizers (e.g., RETAIN), could yield additional options for recovering and repurposing mixed plastics.
One of the most exciting developments underway today is recycling plastics by breaking them down into their basic molecules. This emerging family of technologies can be configured to accept a range of inputs, from pure resins (e.g., PS, PE, PP, PET) to mixed plastics and can produce a variety of outputs, including fuels for transportation, waxes, lubricants, monomers for new virgin plastics, and other basic chemicals for manufacturing. This collection of outputs can be used in countless markets.
Policymakers are recognizing the tremendous potential of these technologies. In the past year, legislatures in Florida, Wisconsin and Georgia have updated their regulations to ensure that their regulations appropriately classify these technologies. Lawmakers are excited about the economic and environmental benefits of diverting additional types of plastics—including multi-material plastics—from landfill and instead converting them into useful new products. These technologies offer enormous potential in the shift toward a more circular economy.
5. Are plastics at a disadvantage in a circular economy?
Russell: The goal of implementing a circular economy is to optimize a full range of environmental and societal outcomes, and no material is better suited to meet these challenges than plastics. To be clear, we fully expect plastics to continue to excel in a circular economy.
Plastics are unique in their ability to help us do more with less, which includes everything from extending the freshness of healthy foods to driving further on a gallon of gas. And versatile plastics are enabling engineers to design out waste and inefficiency while extending recycling and other conversion options for post-use packaging and consumer products.
America’s plastics makers embrace the pursuit of a more circular economy guided by life cycle analysis to help ensure that resources are conserved, waste is reduced, recycling rates are improved, more products are reused, and the value of resources and materials is maximized.
While plastics are already an essential contributor to the circular economy, we recognize more must be done to increase the re-use, recycling and recovery of plastics. Much of our work involves collaborating with innovators to develop new products designed for recycling, and new technologies that advance recovery, including some that break down discarded plastics into their basic chemical building blocks, extending the life and the value of these molecules as raw materials that can be manufactured into entirely new products.
We believe building the infrastructure to allow us treat used plastics as valuable economic resources for new products will help usher in a new level of circularity, keep plastics out of our oceans, and enable us to use these valuable materials to further improve our global standard of living while reducing our environmental footprint.
For more on this issue, see Toward a broader view of the New Plastics Economy, published May 2017.
Steve Russell is vice president of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division, the industry’s source for solutions-oriented programs, scientific research, and public outreach initiatives for the plastics industry—with a particular focus on sustainability, recycling, recovery and marine debris.