Single use plastics have become the focal point for our frustration with plastic waste. Doug Woodring from the Ocean Recovery Alliance wrote in a recent article, “Switching to alternatives might not save the world but the use of single-use plastics sends a distinct message to customers that the brand and its management is not on top of an issue of growing global importance.” Straws are emblematic of our single-use addiction because they are rarely necessary and tossed in a matter of minutes. Recent moves by Starbucks, McDonald’s and others to eliminate straws provides momentum to address the single use challenge. I believe we should embrace this momentum and leverage it to tackle the larger problem of developing system-based solutions for design and recovery of all packaging material types. It’s important that we not get distracted by single substrate solutions.All too often I hear packaging material manufacturers arguing that their specific material is the solution to our infrastructure problems. It’s not that simple.
All packaging materials have environmental impacts. Some have greater impacts at the beginning of life and others at the end of life. We often don’t think about the next life when we are developing packaging. Most materials have an environmental benefit from being recycled. The biggest issue for us to tackle today is creating a value for recycled materials. Materials end up in the ocean because they have no value.
We have two competing trends from different parts of the value chain that we must bring together. On one hand we have corporations increasing their commitments to make packaging from materials that can be recycled. On the other, we have a waste management infrastructure retreating to very basic commodities in response to China’s recent restrictions. A package cannot be considered recyclable if no one wants to use it to make new packaging or products. Many companies are setting challenging targets to make their packaging recyclable or compostable, are committing to use recycled content, and/or helping with collection. This is a great start but they can’t do it alone. They need support from the rest of the value chain including municipalities who are involved in material recovery and consumers. The recent moves by China to restrict the materials it accepts for recycling has exposed weakness in our recycling system. We have become dependent on China to process our materials and let our own infrastructure decline. Municipalities are struggling to find buyers for their recovered recyclables. Our system is out of balance. We have to recognize that it will take investment to build better infrastructure for recovery here in the U.S.. In the past we have relied on the contribution from the collected materials to help fund the system. It is not enough. We have to tackle the issue of how we will pay to recover materials so that they can be reused and recycled.
There is no one size fits all. Packaging has been evolving rapidly in the last decade and our recycling systems have felt the impact of this change. The good old days of a very simplistic material mix are gone. We have not kept pace with the packaging changes and municipalities are struggling to figure out how to finance collection and recovery of packaging.
It’s time that we start to work together and recognize we need a new approach. Brands, manufacturers, recyclers, localities and NGOs need to put more effort into creating more robust American recycling facilities that are designed for today’s packaging. Let’s not make this a single material issue. Let’s leverage the momentum of the backlash against single use plastics and work to create a system where many materials can be recovered and have value.