Effective and actionable recycling strategies are becoming a larger topic across many industries, including electronics, batteries, paper and plastic. With added pressure related to the impact of waste materials finding their way into our waterways and oceans, consumers continue to demand plastic products made from sustainable sources. Groups like the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and America’s Plastic Makers strive to make this happen, and U.S. federal regulations can help keep domestic plastic production competitive.
In July 2021, the ACC and America’s Plastic Makers released their collective “5 Actions for Sustainable Change” as a call to Congress to promote sustainable processes and a circular economy. The ACC describes a circular economy wherein “used materials are recovered and recycled to make new products,” leading to an optimized recycling market, conserved natural resources and supported and increased domestic jobs.
The five main action items these organizations suggest to Congress are:
- Require a “30 by ’30” national recycled plastic standard: Requiring 30% of all plastics to be recycled by 2030 would create a greater need for advanced recycling in addition to traditional mechanical recycling. Advanced recycling is a highly engineered manufacturing process that converts used plastics into products that can be continually recycled.
- Create a modern regulatory system to develop a circular economy for plastics: By taking traditional mechanical and advanced recycling efforts and combining them with existing state and international efforts, more support and capacity for new recycling technologies would emerge. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has its own goal of a 50% recycling rate by 2030, and regulations for advanced recycling growth can help attain it.
- Develop national recycling standards for plastics: By developing national standards for plastics, Congress would empower the EPA and Department of Energy to create a nationwide framework, and a committee that will address each part of it.
- Study the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from all materials to guide informed policy: With the guidance of scientific data about the impact of materials such as plastics, textiles, steel and more, agencies would be able to make factual decisions regarding public policy.
- Establish an American-designed producer responsibility system: This would include providing funding for improved recycling access and collection, incentivizing the use of environmentally friendly packaging materials, and supporting an innovative and competitive free market.
The ACC decisively uses the word “action” to describe its goals, likely because the factor of success for all five would require execution in some fashion. The actions would be expected to accelerate the growth of plastic recycling in the U.S. and reach the goals set not only by the industry, but also by the EPA and other government organizations. Local and state organizations could take action to collect more recycling, increase recycling access and pursue other smaller attainable goals, but it would seem unrealistic for the actions that make the most environmental difference to be completed without federal intervention.
Response to Demands
In November 2021, after President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — which includes the Save Our Seas Act 2.0 — the EPA communicated its National Recycling Strategy, the first part in an ongoing series to create a circular economy. While the ACC and America’s Plastic Makers were not directly credited, many goals appear similar. The strategy has five objectives: improving markets for recycled commodities, increasing collection and improving materials management infrastructure, reducing contamination in the recycled materials stream, enhancing policies and programs to support circularity, and standardizing measurement and increasing data collection.
The EPA reiterated its National Recycling Goal to increase the U.S. recycling rate to 50% by 2030, and emphasized that federal coordination and policy is needed. According to the EPA, the federal government is positioned to advance recycling through policies, procurement and management of waste and recyclables generated at federal facilities. The EPA also mentions that actions could include developing a common policy statement that would support the National Recycling Goal and other collaborative efforts.
Room for Action
A month later, at the end of 2021, the ACC and America’s Plastic Makers released an update to the 5 Actions. This document iterated the importance of utilizing third-party certification standards, and stated that credible, transparent and trustworthy standards would play an important role for the “30 by ’30” goal.
To track this and confirm that used plastic is accounted for accurately in the advanced recycling system, a mass balance approach is suggested. Mass balance certification for advanced recycling would essentially be a way of regulating the quality and process of breaking plastic down into its chemical building blocks and keeping track of allocation and yield.
Lastly, for compliance, the ACC mentions regulations and policy to be aligned with levels of government.
The common theme found among these recent documents is that there is still a long way to go before we achieve a circular economy, and social pressure alone may not encourage the industry to meet aggressive recycling goals. The fast-track solution is effective federal regulation. This potential regulation, however, must be executed in a way that maintains the domestic cost advantage of producing plastics in the U.S.
The Save Our Seas Act 2.0 was a start, but it mainly focuses on grants for and studies of waste management and mitigation, rather than support of tax incentives or more restrictive policies encouraging recycling strategies. Regulation is needed to both jump-start sustainable change and to encourage businesses to take the leap into exploring advanced recycling options by making the endeavor more cost-effective through subsidies. As the years creep forward, pressure to reach the EPA’s goal of 50% recycling by 2030 will increase. As that pressure increases, it is likely we will see more restrictive regulations and proactive plans.
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