Right now, the US plastics pact is the most concrete thing happening in the business world to make plastics more circular.
The group includes large consumer goods manufacturers – who are also large buyers of plastics – such as Coca-Cola Co. and Unilever.
It was launched last year and has some ambitious goals for 2025, including 50 percent of plastic packaging recycled or composted and 30 percent recycled or bio-based content.
If companies can achieve them, those two goals would be a huge step up from where we are now.
The pact also approaches what one observer called an “elephant in the room” later that year when it publishes a list of plastic packaging that it considers “problematic or unnecessary” that its member companies should no longer use.
This list is being watched closely, as you would expect from a group that includes some of the world’s largest buyers of resins for packaging.
Steve Alexander, chairman of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, sees the list as too tough a decision because nobody wants their material to carry this label.
“The elephant in the pact room is ‘problematic and unnecessary,'” he said recently on an episode of APR’s Recycled Content podcast. “These are tough decisions. Everyone will be concerned about their own packaging flows.”
One difficult decision I see is how to deal with styrofoam packaging.
Several other plastic pacts that started before the US have added PS packaging to their problematic lists, including the first, the UK plastic pact.
What made me think of it now was the announcement by Ineos Styrolution, a large manufacturer of PS and styrene resins, on August 24th to join the US pact.
Participation is of course good. Pact leaders have called for more plastic resin companies to join, pointing out the deep research and development bank that these companies can bring.
But I also wonder how that will affect Pact decision-making.
Would the US pact shrink from labeling PS products as problematic and breaking with the UK pact and others if its members include a manufacturer of styrene resins for packaging?
All 11 pacts around the world are under the umbrella of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and all develop their own “problematic or unnecessary” lists under the guidance of the EMF.
So far, four pacts are far enough to publish such a list. Three of them – Chile, Portugal and the UK – have put PS packaging on the list in one way or another. Some groups differentiate between PS and extended PS.
Only the South Africa Plastics Pact does not include a PS on the list, though its late July report states the other three do.
The UK pact says items on the problematic list are applications or materials for which “there are no practical options, such as better design or smarter recycling systems that can make them greener”.
PS is a packaging material with recycling challenges. EPA figures show that only about 4 percent of PS packaging in the US is recycled, compared to about 30 percent for PET or high density polyethylene bottles.
I see challenges from my own experience.
When I buy something that comes in protective polystyrene foam packaging, like a new vanity that was sent to my home in July, I can’t even put that clean foam in my roadside trash can. I have to drive one hour each way across the subway area from DC to the nearest recycling center that brings it.
I am very happy that it protects what I buy. But my travels through the region definitely seem “problematic” to me and give me time to think.
As I drag my foam through the Washington Ring, I wonder if the protective wrap could be made out of something recyclable.
Or why the PS industry can’t pay for more drop-off points and save me the trip if they want to bring such a recycling-requested material onto the market.
I asked Ineos for a comment, but the person quoted in the press release did not have time to speak to me until my deadline. In the announcement, the company says it is joining the US pact because it wants to “make a circular economy of plastics a global reality”.
A look at our stories reveals some who talk about Ineos Styrolution’s work in recycling, including developing chemical recycling technologies to address these issues.
His clear job in recycling. And I am sure that there would of course be an argument against including PS on a list of problematic materials and discussing how complex these decisions are.
I also turned to the US pact. It told me that polystyrene is not excluded from consideration for the list, as are other plastics.
It is said to use the Ellen MacArthur Foundation criteria for problematic or unnecessary packaging “with minor changes”.
A spokeswoman for the pact said they wanted to consider the functionality of a material and prioritize functions like food safety vs. marketing. And she said she wanted “as many stakeholders at the table as possible” so that meaningful and scalable solutions can be developed.
This is a deep dive into how the Pact works, but I think it’s valuable.
We currently do not have a public, government-driven process in the United States to disseminate these types of decisions.
But recycling is a public good. We spend taxpayers money on it, and the pact has now taken on a public role. Transparency is the key.
As might be expected, the idea of a “problematic” list of plastics is controversial for some in the plastics industry, as highlighted by the American Chemistry Council.
So I think there will be a lot of attention paid to what Alexander called the elephant in the room, to what the pact and its member companies ultimately see as “problematic or unnecessary” plastic packaging that should be avoided.