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Earth Day 2020: Innovation, Not Taxes or Bans, Will Solve the Plastic Waste Problem

Earth Day celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and we expect to hear a lot of anti-plastics messaging leading up to April 22. As an antidote, this is the first article in a series that highlights how the plastics industry also is contributing to building a more sustainable future.

We’ve all heard the dire projections surrounding the plastic waste crisis:

  • There will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050;
  • plastic waste volumes will nearly double from 260 million tons per year in 2016 to 460 million tons per year by 2030;
  • only 12% of all plastics is recycled;
  • we’ll be living on a “plastic planet” before the end of this century.

Unfortunately, there are a number of so-called solutions to the plastic waste crisis that don’t fix anything, including fees, taxes, and bans on single-use plastics. In his address to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, Tony Radoszewski, President and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), defended industry’s efforts to offer real solutions. “The plastics industry continues its decades-long history of innovation, not only in material development and package design, but also in creating post-recovery technologies to improve recycling,” he stated.

PlasticsToday marks Earth Day’s 50th anniversary April 22 with a series of articles highlighting the real efforts that the plastics industry is taking to mitigate plastic pollution and develop effective and viable sustainable solutions. You can find all of the relevant content by typing “Earth Day 2020” in the search box at the top of the home page.

In a McKinsey & Co. article, “How Plastics Waste Recycling Could Transform the Chemical Industry,” the authors provide a comprehensive assessment of where future global waste flows will come from, how they could be recycled, and what economic returns this activity could offer. McKinsey also outlines a scenario for the plastics industry by which 50% of plastics worldwide could be reused or recycled by 2030 — “a fourfold increase over what is achieved today” — and that also has the potential to create substantial value. Following that path, plastics reuse and recycling could generate profit-pool growth of as much as $60 billion for the petrochemicals and plastics sector, representing nearly two-thirds of its possible profit-pool growth over the period.”

Is that really possible? I believe it is. As PlasticsToday has researched various advanced technologies that go far beyond trying to mechanically recycle every scrap of plastic material that enters the waste stream, I’ve become more confident in the merit of these new technologies. That’s not to say that the path forward will be an easy or quick fix — many challenges remain, even for the most advanced technologies being introduced.

First and foremost, there is always the challenge of collecting the plastic waste these advanced technologies require to make their business models a success. Over the past few years, almost everyone I have spoken with about these recycling schemes has told me the same thing: We have to find a way to get our hands on the materials we need to make recycling work. That’s true whether it’s mechanical recycling, chemical recycling (plastics-to-fuel, plastics to chemicals, or plastics to base polymer components), and even the various “return and re-use” schemes.

The McKinsey report noted that there are a number of technologies that are “technically feasible” to make reuse of plastics possible, including a massive expansion of mechanical recycling volumes as well as “monomer recycling” (aka chemical recycling) and reprocessing of plastic waste to make liquid feedstock in a cracking-type process, known as pyrolysis.

While mechanical recycling is well-established in the United States through collection bins in urban centers and curbside pickup programs in residential neighborhoods, it’s focused on PET, HDPE, and to some extent PP. However, mechanical recycling also has proven to be expensive and labor intensive, and ultimately is not the best method for reclaiming the most valued plastics. Even with the use of automated vision systems and robotics to divert PET and HDPE (the most in-demand materials) and PP, mechanical recycling will only be cost-effective when plastics recyclers are taking in PET and HDPE exclusively, separately from the #3 to #7 waste plastics.

Banning single-use plastics outright seems to be the direction in which many municipalities and even entire states are moving, and while advanced technologies are being realized commercially at a good pace, I’m not sure legislators or the consuming public has the patience or the inclination to study the science of these methods and allow the necessary time to mass process waste plastics using these innovative methods.

Craig Cookson, Senior Director, Recycling and Recovery, for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), told PlasticsToday that the goal of ACC's Plastics Division and its member companies is to recover and recycle 100% of plastics packaging in the United States. “There’s not just one challenge there, but several components of that goal need to be fixed,” he said. “Consumers are confused and need education. Collection needs to be broader in areas not well served and sortation of materials improved. There is a need for markets, as well.”

While wholesale bans on plastic packaging and single-use plastics appear to be the fast, easy solution for legislators, Cookson believes that lawmakers need to learn the facts. “First, we need to make sure lawmakers understand that when they ban plastic, the alternative materials have a greater environmental footprint in terms of greenhouse gases (GHGs), energy and water usage,” he explained.

Banning plastics has consequences

A report from the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS), “Regulation Risks Less Sustainable Alternatives to Plastic” by Mark Victory, notes that “non-plastic food-packaging alternatives, on average, increase energy use 2.2 times, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions 2.7%, and weight 3.6 times,” according to a report from a select committee in the UK parliament. “As there is greater awareness around GHGs and climate, it’s very important that policy makers are aware that there are consequences to banning plastics,” said Cookson. “Good science and good economics is the foundation for making sound decisions about plastic waste.”

Cookson noted that through engagement with the industry, lawmakers can make better choices. As the industry tells its stories about the good jobs being created, the benefits that plastics bring to society, and the many studies showing that plastic is the most eco-friendly packaging material, Cookson believes that lawmakers will become better informed. “Certainly policy makers are thinking about this and there are some thoughtful lawmakers who take these studies into consideration when making decisions,” Cookson said.

“I think it’s an exciting time for innovators,” Cookson added. “There’s so much interest in sustainability and reducing plastics’ impact on the environment through recycling and other advanced technologies that are effective in helping to solve the plastic waste challenges, it makes outright bans unnecessary.”

Image: Dimazel/Adobe Stock

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