The U.S. recycling market has been in free fall since 2018, when China, Malaysia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries announced that they would no longer import many types of recyclable material scraps. Of course, the U.S. recycling system had been a mess for far longer — seeing as the country never fully developed the infrastructure to recycle anywhere near the amount of plastic waste it produces. Indeed, only 8.4 percent of all the plastic produced in 2017 eventually got recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But a new agreement announced last week at Circularity 20, GreenBiz Group’s virtual conference on the circular economy, has the potential to change that: The U.S. Plastics Pact.
This new initiative is a collaborative project launched by the Recycling Partnership and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that aims to redesign the way the United States uses plastics so that they don't become waste in the first place. The effort is part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global Plastics Pact network: The think tank has helped organize key public and private stakeholders to push towards a circular economy for plastic in countries around the world, from the United Kingdom to Chile to South Africa.
Redesigning the way we use one of the most ubiquitous and convenient materials on the planet won’t be easy. But the initiative is setting distinct targets and deadlines for meeting them. Shooting for 2025, its main goals are:
- Make sure all plastic packaging is 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable
- Take action to ensure that 50 percent of plastic packaging is recycled or composted
- Have the average recycled content or responsibly sourced bio-based content in plastic packaging be 30 percent
The U.S. Plastics Pact has gathered more than 60 prominent partners, which will provide research and funding. They include local governments from Arizona to Texas to California; NGOs such as the Ocean Conservancy and The United States Composting Council; and companies ranging from Eastman to Target. All of these stakeholders have to agree to work in a pre-competitive environment towards the Pact’s targets.
So what will this new collaboration look like? Stephanie Kersten-Johnston, director of innovation at the Recycling Partnership, told GreenBiz that she expects it to be not just a network, but "a network on fire" — with all partners engaged to take the most effective action and make the most impact on the targets.
In some ways it’s a support group for organizations to meet these targets, but we can’t just expect some representatives talking — we need the full value chain in there acting.
"In some ways it’s a support group for organizations to meet these targets, but we can’t just expect some representatives talking — we need the full value chain in there acting," she added.
Hitting the target: How the U.S. Plastics Pact aims to achieve its ambitious goals
2025 isn’t too far off, so the U.S. Plastics Pact is getting started right away, according to Kersten-Johnston.
In the first six months to one year, developing a roadmap will be the top priority for the project. "So we set these targets, these aspirations — but what are the practical steps we need to get there?" she said.
"In the first year, this will look like network meetings," she explained. "In practice, groups [of partner organizations] will be convening that will be called ‘workstreams.’ They focus on smaller, specific topics that can’t be solved by a singular organization … where the work is done, where the research is undertaken, and the formulation of the practical steps will take place."
For example, workstreams include deciding on the data that will be used. "How do we agree to tight definitions that we haven’t agreed on before?" Kersten-Johnston added. "What does that look like in the U.S. in practice? What cadence are we measuring on? What data sources will we be using?"
If certain types of plastic are too hard to recycle or reuse, meaning they don’t have an end-of-life, they can't have any place in a circular economy for plastics.
Another workstream will decide which plastic materials are too problematic and unnecessary, and need simply to be eliminated from production. If certain types of plastic are too hard to recycle or reuse, meaning they don’t have an end of life, they can't have any place in a circular economy for plastics.
After that, the organizations along the plastics value chain — from chemical companies to product designers to plastic recycling facilities and municipalities to materials recovery groups — will rework their operations in line with the targets.
That’s where the power of having corporate partners from several sectors comes in. Large companies and governments have been saying for years that they want to work to eliminate single-use plastics.
In the past few years, there have been a flurry of plastics-related commitments. McDonald’s, for example, set a commitment in 2018 that its 36,000 restaurants would use only packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sustainable sources by 2025. Coca-Cola also announced it would help collect and recycle "the equivalent" of 100 percent of its packaging and make bottles with an average of 50 percent recycled content by 2030. Nestle, Disney, Starbucks, IKEA and others also have pledged to cut down on single-use plastics over that time.
For all these companies, working together to make a better plastics value chain, from producing more recyclable plastics to creating more chemical recycling facilities, will enable them to meet both their targets and the targets of the entire U.S. Plastics Pact more easily.
"We can start to address the plastic waste issue by taking fast and transformative action at every point in the plastic cycle," said Viviana Alvarez, head of sustainability, North America, at Unilever, in a statement. "Recycling alone can't solve the circular economy, but the circular economy can help solve the problem on waste and recycling. Keeping plastic in the economy and out of the environment will require everyone to work together — whether that's product designers, governments, consumers or the waste management industry."
A history of the Global Plastics Pact
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation first created its Global Plastic Pact as part of its New Plastics Economy Global Commitment in 2016. The circular economy powerhouse got over 20 percent of all global plastic packaging companies to pledge to address plastic waste and pollution at its source. (In total, more than 450 organizations have joined their global pacts around the world, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.)
These Global Plastics Pact are networks of plastic waste initiatives in different countries, which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation organizes.
They include the UK Plastics Pact, the Pacte National sur les emballages plastiques in France, Circula El Plástico in Chile, the Plastic Pact NL (Dutch) in the Netherlands, the South African Plastics Pact, and the Pacto Português para os Plásticos (Portuguese) in Portugal. Each country’s goals are slightly different, based on the infrastructure of the location, and the U.S. is the latest initiative.
"There was an unspoken question in the U.S. about how we were going to meet these targets, particularly how we were going to achieve particularly closing the gaps between supply and demand so everyone viewed it as a topic that needed to be tackled but it was never addressed," Kersten-Johnston described.
So the Recycling Partnership stepped up to meet the massive opportunity in the U.S.: transforming the waste management system of the biggest economy in the world to foster sustainability on a massive scale.