Plastics industry pushes for more recycling infrastructure
Monday, March 19, 2018
With near unanimous agreement that something must be done to stem the flow of plastic waste into landfills, waterways and oceans, members of the plastics industry are working closely with recycling advocates and other stakeholders to ensure funding for recycling projects is included in the infrastructure spending bills currently being considered by Congress.
"When it comes to marine debris and litter, we are often in agreement with plastics critics about the overall problem: that waste materials should not end up in places they do not belong," explained Scott DeFife, vice president for government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Plastics Industry Association, which represents every segment of the plastics supply chain.
"As an association that represents plastic manufacturers," he continued, "people who take pride and joy in making products that keep food safe and enable life-saving devices in hospitals, the last place we want to see our members' products end up is on a sidewalk or in the marine environment."
Plastic waste in the marine environment has become a global cause for concern. In California, the Legislature banned single-use plastic bags in grocery stores in 2016, and a similar bill proposes to ban unattached plastic bottle caps. Plastic drinking straws are also on the list.
Yet at the same time, the state's vaunted 30-year-old "Bottle Bill" program, which provides subsidies to recycling centers throughout California, appears to be breaking down.
California's 2,000 or so recycling centers, where customers exchange plastic, glass and aluminum containers for cash refunds, typically recycled more than 80 percent of the state's plastic beverage waste. After a 2016 funding shortfall that has yet to be rectified, more than 500 centers have closed, and recycling rates have fallen below 80 percent for the first time in years.
Nationally, 94 percent of Americans have access to recycling services, including 73 percent who have curbside recycling, according to a study commissioned by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. That represents a great stride forward in the recycling of all materials.
But according to the EPA, of the 35.2 million tons of plastic waste generated in the U.S. in 2014, just 9.5 percent was recycled, with another 15 percent burned in co-generation plants. The remaining 75.5 percent went into landfills. Some of that will eventually make it into waterways and into the ocean. The need for recycling infrastructure investment is self-evident.
"When discussing so called 'single-use' products, like straws or utensils, the focus shouldn't be whether we have them on not, but instead that they are disposed of properly," DeFife said. "We're serious about focusing on solutions, and that means investing in expanding recycling technology."
To that end, DeFife said the Plastics Industry Association is seeking infrastructure funding in the following areas:
- Investment in retrofitting materials recovery facilities (MRFs) with sorting equipment that can handle flexible film and other recyclable materials.
- Assistance in locating and siting of plastics recycling facilities and energy recovery facilities.
- Increase use of recycled material in infrastructure products, where appropriate.
- Broaden the use and volume of private activity bonds for recycling projects.
- Incentivize state and local governments to expand curbside recycling options and the range of materials collected through grants.
- Provide education and training to improve understanding of what is recyclable.
- Work with retail outlets to collect the material in the proper manner and offer more centralized commercial collection points.
Working with the Plastics Industries Association and spearheading a coalition of industries across the board in the push for infrastructure funding is The Recycling Partnership.
"We work closely with the Association of Plastic Recyclers, the American Chemistry Council and the Plastics Industry Association to help support plastics recovery and have consulted with all of them on this concept," explained Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industry collaboration at The Recycling Partnership.
"We have also talked to a broader set of stakeholders, including the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries and the Solid Waste Association of North America, because this is something that is needed across all material types, not just plastics."
The problem all of these stakeholders share? Recycling and waste management aren't necessarily high up on most politicians' lists when it comes to infrastructure projects. So far, there's been no specific funding set aside for any projects, de Thomas said.
"None that we have seen — though we have been working with other stakeholders in the industry to push for recycling infrastructure to be included in bills," he said. "According to our colleagues in D.C., there is preliminary bipartisan support for the concept, so we will be working to flesh out the concept."
The Recycling Partnership sponsors polices that promote curbside recycling programs that aren't material-specific. But outside the legislative arena, it has been deeply involved with the Recycling Demand Champions program, the Association of Plastic Recyclers' campaign to promote the use and development of new recyclable plastic products in communities nationwide.
In May, the Plastics Industry Association will launch "This Is Plastic," a web portal designed designed "to empower people who work in plastics to explain the power of plastics to family, friends and neighbors."
The searchable website will feature articles, images, interactive quizzes and videos that can shared on social media to help inspire more meaningful conversations about plastic waste when someone in all earnestness says "just ban it."
"Focusing on bans of specific products ignores the discussion of overall environmental impact of the alternatives," DeFife said. "Banning one material usually means it is replaced with another, which doesn't solve the actual end goal of reducing waste through proper disposal."
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