Global recycling rates are at a discouragingly low 13.5%. But who, or what, is to blame? Finger-pointing won’t help: Policy, consumer demand and companies must work in tandem to close the loop in a still-lacking US recycling system.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) advocates argue that recycling narratives too often toss a hot potato of externalities at consumers. Producers have argued that consumers just don't care enough to warrant efforts to achieve a circular economy.
Both arguments contain equal degrees of right and wrong.
“Everybody's argument has some merit. You've really got to be a discerning player to understand all of the pieces we need and figure out an idea that works together.”
That's Peter Hjemdahl, co-founder and chief advocacy officer at RePurpose Global — which helps companies, brands and individuals go plastic neutral by funding innovators on the forefront of preventing plastic waste from getting into the environment.
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Still, with global waste-diversion rates at a discouragingly low 13.5 percent, it's clear there is a problem. But who, or what, is to blame?
Ending the blame game
Who to blame is the wrong question. Proper plastics management — with a goal of circularity — will only progress if all stakeholders embrace the unromantic truth that reality is complicated.
“It's really hard to put the blame on any one piece in the chain,” said Larine Urbina, a communications and outreach specialist at Tetra Pak. “Consumers are confused and the messaging done by producers is not always easy to understand. To truly 'fix' the issues in our recycling system, there's responsibility at every level.”
Razor-thin profit margins, the need to protect products and scarcity of quality recycled material make it exceedingly difficult — and sometimes impossible — to realize meaningful plastic recirculation on the producer end. For consumers and governments, the grave problem of plastics pollution and carbon reduction makes it easy to put the onus on producers — as is now the case in Maine.
But consumers want recycled goods, and companies are eager to oblige. Knowing products are made from recycled content inspires 70 percent of consumers to recycle more, according to a recent study. Consumers need recycling to be simpler and know how to recycle properly.
“What we can't do is make it so complex that the consumer doesn't even know [how or what] to put in the bin. If they don't know, they won't put anything in the bin,” Urbina said.
Part of what makes recycling confusing is complex and inconsistent recyclability of packaging by suppliers. Creating a product that's simple to recycle is incumbent on producers’ responsibility — actually putting material in the bin is up to consumers.
A crippled system
“The [recycling] system as a whole is struggling,” said Jordan Fengel, Sustainability Manager at Tetra Pak. “As a nation, the US been at a 30 percent recycling rate for a long time; several commodities across the board have poor recovery and recycling rates, yet hold enormous value for being put back into the circular economy as feedstock for reuse and manufacturing.”
Fengel believes barriers to a circular economy aren't corporate lethargy, blame-gaming, or necessarily consumer laziness or indifference: It's poor education, lacking infrastructure and anemic policy.
Brands want the material — and hopefully, policy will soon require it.
“What companies are more interested in is utilizing recycled content if it's going to be available, and doing more proactive initiatives and measures that can get them in the 'We're OK' consumer eye,” Fengel said.
But for now, the supply just isn't there. Commitments by the largest brands are way beyond what current infrastructure and demand currently supply.
To meet brand commitments around post-consumer recycled content (PCR), plastic reclamation capacity in the US would need to increase by at least 50 percent from current capacity. PCR commitments will meet or exceed impending PCR policies that will likely pass several state legislatures this year, not to mention potential national policy soon. A 50 percent increase may soon be too small a number.
Take Tetra Pak's own cartons. The infrastructure and material science isn't there yet to replace virgin fibers used in Tetra Pak design. The company is working to incorporate recycled content into its cartons, in addition to pledging 100 percent renewable packaging material by 2030. But without certified, quality, recycled material; and infrastructure, commitments and R&D will go only so far.
Another thorn in the side are massive subsidies still freely doled out to virgin material extraction. Virgin material subsidies are so baked into the landscape that few view rocking the boat as the best way forward. Artificially deflated virgin material prices are still something the industry accepts as an indelible reality. For now.
Even if PCR sees greater utilization, much is still of lower quality — and, without hefty policy and incentives, it can't currently stand on its own against virgin materials.
To help promote the use of PCR, the three legs of a closed-loop system need to be strengthened.
The three legs of a closed-loop system
Fengel is hopeful that consumers, companies and policy can coalesce to close the system. Right now, industry is taking its cues from consumers, who are shifting purchasing decisions based on intrinsic values rather than the cheapest option.
“Consumers have a choice, and they're putting their dollars where their values are,” he said.
Internal corporate motivation and consumer demand are two legs of a three-legged stool propping up a circular economy. The missing leg is the policy piece.
The US is one of the only OECD countries without a national recycling program. Absent national policy, US industries are spurred by consumer demand. If policy and demand were aligned, the material loop would be much closer to closing.
But companies are acting now: Purposeful materials design and reuse have profound business and environmental merits that can stand on their own two feet.
“We can't wait around for government policy,” Hjemdahl said. “Those take years and decades — we really don't have years and decades. That's why you see a lot of businesses stepping up. They realize they're a part of the problem; and they want to be a part of the solution.”
Businesses are investing a lot of time and money into proactive steps, Fengel pointed out.
“Proactiveness is going to be, in my opinion, an effective and efficient way for businesses to operate,” he said.
Proactive measures are greeted by consumers willing to pay premiums for recycled content, picking up the slack where government policy and incentives are lacking.
Policy, consumer demand and companies must work in tandem to close the loop in a still-lacking US recycling system. Policy will set standards and provide incentives, companies will enact them, and consumers will respond by feeding more and higher-quality content back into recycling streams to meet demand.
The collective might of organizations helps spur innovation and funding for recycling solutions. Hundreds of companies have joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastic Economy, the US Plastics Pact and other cross-industry coalitions to move circularity forward. And if they fail on these very visible commitments, they'll answer to a growing number of organizations and individuals ready to hold them accountable.
Organizations such as RePurpose Global are scaling innovative plastic solutions through funding access. Companies such as Tetra Pak embed purposeful design into their packaging solutions to ensure materials do the most good throughout their life cycle.
Ultimately, as countless businesses and organizations lead by example and consumer behavior and demand continue to reflect their values, the missing piece of US state and national policies will begin to take shape — and the prospect of a circular economy will edge closer to reality.