Nashville, Tenn. — Industry needs to be ready for a much stronger government role in plastics recycling, potentially including things like fees on packaging to help pay for costly upgrades to collection infrastructure.
That was the message that came from some industry leaders at the recent Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show, where discussions about government policy — and directly with government officials — took a much larger place than normal.
The call for a packaging fee, for example, came from Keefe Harrison, CEO of the industry-funded group The Recycling Partnership, which raises money from companies to support local recycling programs.
She told the conference, held Feb. 17-19 in Nashville, that her group is getting ready to announce policy proposals to help close a $9 billion shortfall in funding local recycling systems. Harrison suggested it could include a fee on packaging.
"A partial penny per package would go a long way to building the solutions that we need to get to that $9 billion leveling up," Harrison told the audience. "We're working on policy initiative right now."
As well, Steve Alexander, president and CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, told the conference that there's growing recognition in industry, and some change in thinking, that government policy is needed.
"The reality is that we're beginning to understand that we do not have the ability to do this alone," Alexander said. "Policy must play a role, as we look to grow and enhance the recycling system in this country.
"Policy is critical and it's going to play a role," he said. "We are not saying we're going to agree with them on everything, but we hope to be the data point to tell them what the art of the possible is so we can really work to solve this issue."
The public concern about plastics and more broadly about recycling is being heard in Congress, and Washington is paying attention in ways it has not done for many years, Harrison said.
"We see Congress is interested in this in a way that they have not been in decades, and we want to make sure that they get it right because now is the time," Harrison said.
That interest is reflected in proposals like a Feb. 11 bill from two Democratic lawmakers calling for bans on some single-use plastics and plans to shift the cost of recycling to companies through an extended producer responsibility system that would apply to all packaging materials.
That proposal, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, was a centerpiece of discussion at the conference.
While it's quite unlikely the bill will become law as it stands now, it's gotten considerable attention.
The conference, in fact, began with a lengthy panel discussion between APR's Alexander and congressional staff working on recycling and plastics issues, including Jonathan Black, a senior adviser to Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., one of the authors of the Feb. 11 legislation.
US Plastics Pact
Apart from legislation, there are more industry initiatives underway.
The U.S. Plastics Pact is an initiative to implement corporate commitments around use or reduction of plastic. The move goes along with goals spelt out in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy project and is set to be announced in April, with the Recycling Partnership as one of the lead organisers, Harrison said.
The U.S. pact follows similar moves in other countries and will include the World Wildlife Fund and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as other organisers, she said.
"We want to make sure that what we see in the U.S. is a coordinated, orchestrated elevation of circularity," Harrison said. "What we don't want is a series of one-off projects."
A report issued by the partnership last year, called the Bridge to Circularity, tracked those pledges and found that there's a lot of ground still be covered, she said.
"How close are we to the goal of increased sustainability and circularity, of high recycled content and high recyclability?" Harrison said. "What we found is we're not very close."
Fixing local recycling systems is of course not only an issue of plastics packaging, she said.
Another study issued earlier in February by the partnership, the 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report, said local recycling programs are under the most stress in their 30-year history, with intense economic pressures on cities.
That's leading to much more interest from lawmakers, according to Harrison and other speakers at the event, which is owned by APR.
Sarah Peery, a legislative aide to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told the conference that Portman was motivated to introduce legislation aimed at boosting grant funding after complaints from Ohio cities about costs they face running recycling programs.
That has led APR to hire its first Washington lobbyist, Alexander told an APR membership meeting Feb. 20. It is a change for a group that historically has not faced such direct questions from the federal government.
In an interview on the sidelines of the conference, Harrison said government involvement will increase.
"It's going to come, unless we shape it. It's shape or be shaped," Harrison said. "The headwinds against recycling are bigger than any of us can manage unless we really use this as an opportunity to not just restore old-school recycling but really advance the circular economy."