The Plastic Crisis Is Here

pile of empty recyclable plastic water bottles

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The crisis in plastic recycling has reached a critical point. U.S. communities are discontinuing plastic recycling programs. We must use less plastic. But we also must recycle the plastic we use in order to reduce the environmental impact of oil drilling and plastic production. One major plastic user, bottled water giant Nestlé, has announced it will invest to support more plastic recycling.

How2Recycle announced recently that it can no longer label commonly recycled plastics with its “Recyclable” label. Instead, How2Recycle will now label plastics with “Check Locally.” You can use Earth911’s recycling search to find your local options. Because U.S. recycling programs are rapidly changing which materials they accept, we recommend you check with your local solid waste program, too.

Nestle’s commitment to pay more than market price for recycled food-grade #1 plastic for use in its bottled water packaging also indicates that business is listening to the 65 percent of consumers and 7 in 10 voters making sustainability a priority.

Is This the Bottom?

We hope this is the lowest the plastics crisis can go. Since China stopped accepting contaminated recyclables from the United States in 2018, hundreds of city, county, and private recycling programs have stopped accepting plastic. Even in the European Union, the government this month warned that a “huge investment” is needed to meet the continent’s 2025 plastic recycling goals.

These circumstances forced How2Recycle to change their plastic labeling. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission requires that material like plastic be recyclable at curbside for 60 percent of homes in order to qualify for the “recyclable” label.

According to How2Recycle: the “[b]est available data indicates that the majority (60%) of Americans can no longer recycle non-bottle rigid PET containers in their community. As a result, it no longer meets the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines for an unqualified recyclability claim, and PET non-bottle rigid containers will now feature the Check Locally label for the How2Recycle program in the United States.”

“[W]e strongly encourage How2Recycle members to work with organizations like Closed Loop Partners and The Recycling Partnership to facilitate proactive interventions to improve the recyclability of packaging,” How2Recycle said.

Glimmers of Hope

Nestlé’s announcement in January that it will invest $2 billion to increase its supply of recycled plastic is a welcome move from a company that has long vexed environmentalists and social activists. The investment to “create a market” in food-grade recycled plastic will support Nestlé’s transition from using virgin materials to recycled and 100 percent recyclable packaging by 2025.

It all sounds good, but in practice, this initiative will have difficulty delivering on its goals without greater efforts to improve local plastic recycling. It’s in your community, and in every other community, that plastic is consumed, discarded, and sometimes — too rarely — recycled. Only about 9 percent of all plastic ever manufactured has been recycled, with another 12 percent going to incinerators to generate power.

The plan to pay a premium for recycled food-grade plastics is the keystone for improvement. But more companies than Nestlé need to participate. In every industry, not just plastics, there is an opportunity to pay more for recycled materials in order to reduce the use of virgin materials in products and packaging.

Where is U.S. plastic recycling today? Only 8.4 percent of all plastics were recycled in 2017, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And keep in mind that plastic can be recycled only two or three times before becoming useless.

Even with improvements in plastic recycling, reducing plastic use overall necessary for achieving a carbon-neutral society.

A Vast Mine of Untapped Recyclables

Americans and people around the world have enjoyed six decades of plastic prosperity by ignoring the pollution the material creates. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced, 6.55 billion metric tons are still available to be recycled. Every year, the U.S. produces another 35.4 million tons of plastic. Many other recyclable materials, such as aluminum, of which only 49 percent is recycled in the U.S., paper, and glass are piling up, waiting for the market to recognize their value.

The Nestlé plan to pay more than market rates for recycled plastic is a model many industries can embrace to increase the use of recycled materials. But it takes a commitment to sustainability and money to drive such programs into common use.

Consumers have long made clear they will pay a premium for sustainable products and packaging. It is time to stop the collapse of U.S. recycling with investments that drive new recycling capacity. Paying more than current market rates for recycled food-grade plastic is not bad business practice. Rather, it’s the recognition that recycling is critically important to continued prosperity and human health.

When manufacturing and consumer goods companies embrace the value of recycled materials, we will all benefit. Higher prices for the plastic, glass, paper, and other recyclables that have been stockpiled since China’s ban on U.S. materials will also unlock entrepreneurial innovation. Money is the most reliable fuel for a massive change in industrial policy.

A commitment to increase access to recyclables is an important step for companies to make in support of their customers’ goal of living sustainably. We encourage companies around the world to consider increasing the price paid for recyclables.

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