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Sustainable Plastics, Recycling, and the Elephant in the Room

A key goal of the new US Plastics Pact is to recycle or compost 50% of plastic packaging by 2025. Is that realistic?

Robert Lilienfeld

September 2, 2020

3 Min Read
Robert Lilienfeld

Plastics Today is one of many industry magazines that recently published the announcement of the US Plastics Pact (see U.S Plastics Pact Articulates Tailored Approach to Circularity, published August 2020).

The 60 signers include global consumer packaged goods companies (but interestingly, not P&G), relevant trade associations, and recyclers. The pact is led by The Recycling Partnership and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and was launched as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global Plastics Pact network.

A key goal of the program is to effectively recycle or compost 50% of plastic packaging by 2025.

Sounds noble, doesn’t? Just think, in less than five years, amidst a pandemic, global economic recession and resulting low virgin resin prices, we’re going to move the plastics packaging recycling rate from 13% in 2017 (Source: EPA) to 50%!

I mention the pandemic because it’s a powerful analogy. According to a recent article in The New York Times (A Detailed Map of Who Is Wearing Masks in the U.S., July 17, 2020), 41% of Americans say that they do not wear masks when leaving the house.

And, we know from years of research experience that of those who say they do, many of them are lying to make themselves feel better and look better to the researchers and their clients.

The connection between masks and recyclables.

So, for the sake of argument, it’s fair to say that approximately 50% of Americans do not wear masks, even in the face of mandates to do so and strong statistical evidence that equates mask wearing with reduced incidence of both infection and death (Face mask wearing rate predicts country's COVID-19 death rates, June 22, 2020.)

So, if half the American public won’t wear a simple mask in order to protect themselves, their families, and those around them, what makes you think that they’re going to bother to recycle their plastic packaging? And what makes you believe that the other 50% will recycle all of their plastic packaging, and do so 100% of the time?

And, that’s when the elephant appears: What’s missing with both mask wearing and plastics recycling is the realization that political will in the form of laws and regulations, and regulatory muscle in the form of fees and/or fines, are needed to either keep people safe from viral infection, or the environment safe from waste created by plastic packaging.

We can talk about personal responsibility regarding recycling until the cows come home. But until there are real consequences for consumers if they don’t participate, I’m afraid it will just be talk. And that’s when legislation that is truly detrimental to the packaging industry, in the form of bans and moratoriums, will be enacted.

To co-opt that well-known phrase from the Christians’ Book of Common Prayer, Act now (to ensure that increased recycling happens) or forever hold your peace.


Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved in sustainable packaging for 25 years, working as a marketing consultant, editor, writer, and communications expert. His personal website is https://www.robertlilienfeld.com/


About the Author(s)

Robert Lilienfeld

Robert Lilienfeld Consulting

Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved in sustainable packaging for 25 years, working as a marketing executive, consultant, strategic planner, editor, writer, and communications expert. He’s President of Robert Lilienfeld Consulting, working with materials suppliers, converters, trade associations, retailers, and brand owners. He also recently founded SPRING, The Sustainable Packaging Research, Information, and Networking Group. Reach him at [email protected].

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