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Ending Plastic Waste: A Promising Vision and Emerging Solutions Give Reason for Optimism

Around the globe, people are increasingly aware of the amount of plastic in the environment. Governments. Businesses. Nonprofits. Everyday citizens. Everyone seems to agree the problem is urgent, and many people, including the Editorial Board of the Washington Post, are naturally wondering: what are America’s plastic makers doing to help solve the problem?

Our industry believes that we can—and will—help end plastic waste. Full stop. Yes, plastics provide irreplaceable benefits that are critical to preserving food, saving lives, and reducing our overall environmental footprint. At the same time, we must continually challenge ourselves to make the most efficient use of resources and to move toward more circular systems where resources are used and reused to the greatest extent possible. 

Achieving this vision, which many are calling a “circular economy,” will require progress and collaboration across several areas, such as advances in collection, sortation, and processing of used plastics. It demands more and better recycling, including systems, infrastructure and participation; improvements in technologies, changes in product design, and new business models to repurpose plastics. And it requires strong partnerships and commitments between material suppliers, processors, brand companies, recyclers, and governments around the world.

Achieving a true circular economy, in which used plastics are routinely recovered and systematically repurposed, will require game-changing initiatives and coordination across all of these areas. Thankfully, these types of changes are beginning to take hold, bringing with them both momentum and optimism. Below are several promising examples.

Jump-starting Infrastructure Where It’s Needed Most

A consortium of nearly 40 leading global companies has formed the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Representing brand companies, plastic producers and processors, and waste management companies, the Alliance has set a goal of deploying $1.5 billion over the next five years to help end plastic waste in the environment. Many of their efforts will focus on developing the infrastructure to capture and repurpose plastics in parts of the world where the majority of waste is leaking into the ocean due to lack of waste management. The Alliance is working across the globe to promote infrastructure, education and engagement, innovation, and cleanup efforts.

More and Better Recycling, At Home and Abroad

China and other Southeast Asian countries recently have stopped or slowed the import of many recyclable materials, including plastics, from the United States and other developed countries, forcing a largely global recycling industry to rethink its existing systems and infrastructure. Several companies are facing these challenges head on. Recyclers such as FCC, Green Tech Solutions and others are adjusting to this “new normal” by investing in U.S. infrastructure. In some cases, companies have announced new and more advanced processing plants, including better sorting equipment, to produce higher quality recycled plastics. And organizations such as The Recycling Partnership, which has served nearly 1,100 communities and 55 million households, and Closed Loop Partners, which is enabling significant investments in our communities, are just a couple of examples helping to strengthen local systems that Americans rely on to recycle everyday plastics. The learnings from these initiatives can be adapted and potentially applied worldwide.

Technologies and New Business Models

So, what happens to plastics after we collect them? That’s where emerging technologies come in. Recent advances are allowing companies—such as Agilyx, Brightmark Energy, Golden Renewable, New Hope Energy, Plastic Energy and Renewlogy—to convert used plastics into a range of products to meet a variety of market needs. These innovators use processes that break down plastics into their basic building blocks and then recombine them into various products, such as brand new plastics, transportation fuels, and useful materials such as waxes, lubricants, and chemicals for new manufacturing.

These new technologies are helping to bring about more circular business models. Just a few publicly announced examples include Agilyx, which breaks down polystyrene into styrene and sells it to Americas Styrenics for the manufacture of new polystyrene, in a potentially never-ending loop. Agilyx also creates jet fuel and will sell it to Monroe Energy, a subsidiary of Delta Airlines. Similarly, SABIC will use chemical recycling processes to sell circular polymers to major brands, such as Unilever and Tupperware. And Brightmark Energy will sell ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel to BP.

These business models and the jobs associated with them didn’t exist until recently. These companies are leveraging emerging technologies to create businesses that 1) keep plastics out of the environment and 2) repurpose them into valuable products.

In addition, many of the world’s largest brands—such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Nestle Waters, and Unilever, to name a few—have committed to using large percentages of recycled plastics in their products and packaging by 2025/30. These brands are recognized as leaders in sustainability, and their commitments will help drive demand for recycled plastics—a key component in ending waste.

Working with Governments

Government has a role to play in achieving a circular economy by encouraging continued development of these new technologies and setting goals that all materials must meet, such as requiring all packaging to be recyclable or recoverable by 2030. ACC has supported legislation that would address the challenge of recovering foodservice packaging. We have supported a fee of three-tenths of a cent per cup, bowl or plate be applied to all materials to help develop this infrastructure. In addition, we have supported straw-upon-request legislation like that in California, which would reduce unnecessary use of straws. And we supported federal legislation to reduce plastic in the ocean, including the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 and the Save Our Seas Act of 2018, and we currently support the Save Our Seas Act 2.0.

Why Not Just Stop Making Plastics?

People overwhelmingly want to keep the benefits of plastics that we all rely on. Lightweight car parts that create safer, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Tough gear that protects our soldiers and firefighters. Advanced sports gear that protects our children and enables us to excel. Protective packaging that dramatically reduces food waste and the carbon emissions that result from it. Medical advances that save lives.

In addition and very importantly, a recent life-cycle study demonstrates that switching from plastics to alternatives in consumer products and packaging would increase costs to the environment nearly fourfold. Nobody wants that.

But at the same time, nobody wants plastics in our environment or ocean.

Our Vision

America’s plastic makers have a vision: all post-use plastics are recovered from the environment and repurposed into new products. So, we’re investing in solutions and working on policies to help realize that vision. Emerging technologies together with better recycling and new product designs are changing business models and bringing a new era of energy and hope to the challenge of building a circular economy. In collaboration with scientists, governments, and non-profits around the globe, we believe these solutions promise to make possible a world in which plastic waste is just a memory.

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