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The Current - Plastic: Keeping It Out of Nature and In Circulation

By: Rachel Goldstein

There have been no shortages of stories and images of plastic waste on land and in the oceans. While plastic waste isn’t new, the 2015 Science publication of “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean” significantly changed the external conversation. This study put a number to the litter we already knew was happening, and a cause. Eight million metric tons of plastic were entering the oceans, primarily due to poor waste management on land. The 2017 documentary Blue Planet II shifted the conversation even more by showing compelling imagery of marine life entangled in plastic pollution. The public now wants to know why plastic is getting into oceans, is not being recycled, or even if plastic is necessary.

There have also been no shortages of articles about the challenges and decline of recycling. Consumers assumed the plastic packaging they put in their blue bin was getting recycled inside the country where it was collected but are now learning more about its fate. The U.S. and other developed countries were shipping large volumes of materials (plastic and paper) to China to be recycled, until last year. Contamination rates of these materials became worse and China tightened the limits to something so stringent that they have effectively banned the imports of these materials.

Even when China was still the primary export market, recycling rates had plateaued in many countries. So why isn’t much of the plastic packaging put on the market today being recycled? Packaging is recyclable if it can be collected, sorted, reprocessed, and ultimately reused in manufacturing another item. Recycling is a business driven by the same forces as any business, such as supply/demand balances, economies of scale, limitations of technology, etc.
Three things have to happen for plastic packaging to be recyclable: (1) the material and design of the package needs to be “technically recyclable”, (2) there needs to be infrastructure that can sort and handle the material, (3) and the consumer needs to do the right thing- put it in the appropriate recycling bin. Once all of these criteria have been met, there needs to be an end market for the material to actually be recycled.

Packaging materials have steadily migrated to flexible plastic for many reasons ranging from price to functionality, consumer preference to sustainability. Moving from a can to a pouch may yield greenhouse gas reductions in transportation and material impact. This flexible, light-weight packaging is extremely material efficient reducing the amount of material needed to protect the product. Yet, recyclers are paid by weight and this difficult to collect and sort format adds cost to the recycling system but has no end market value. Some formats are laminated layers of different materials (plastics and metals) and are not easy or cost effective to separate. We are left with tension between material efficiency at start of life- which reduces the amount of material and carbon- and lack of material value at the end of life.

How can we not only keep plastics out of rivers and oceans, but make them more recyclable and circular? All parts of the value chain have a role to play.

Brands and retailers can:

  • Streamline design and material choices to improve material flow for recyclers. Existing infrastructure in material recovery facilities (MRF) is better suited to plastic bottles, metals, and heavier paper like corrugated boxes.
  • Support advanced recycling technologies (like pyrolysis or gasification) to handle flexible packaging materials and films that either get sorted out or clog up existing MRFs.
  • Collaborate with governments to increase access to recycling (store drop off, more recycling bins)

Consumers can:

  • Use reusable bags, water bottles and coffee cups. Skip straws.
  • Choose not to litter. Terrestrial waste goes into rivers and into the oceans.
  • Look for labels that tell if you a package is recyclable. If in doubt, throw it out. This is a difficult message. For many of us when in doubt we put it in the bin, hoping it will get recycled.
  • Take plastic film or pet food bags back to store drop off centers where available. This material can be recycled but a pre-sort by consumers makes it much easier and less costly to the system.
  • Support reuse models. Terracycle launched Loop, a platform for reuse of packaging. Consumers have a key role in making reuse models a success.
  • Send a demand signal to the brands and ask for recycled content in packaging. Help create the end market.

Rachel Goldstein is the Global Sustainability Senior Manager for Packaging and External Reporting at Mars, Incorporated. Rachel has an MBA with an Environmental Management Concentration from The George Washington University, and a B.S. Human Factors Engineering from Tufts University

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