WHY THE FOCUS SHOULD BE ON PLASTIC WASTE—NOT PLASTICS
BY CHRIS TORRES
Joshua Baca, the vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council (ACC) minces no words when responding to questions about recent efforts to implement sales bans on products made of plastic: “We have a plastic waste problem. We don’t have a plastic problem.”
For decades, plastic has been a popular packaging option for consumers, food producers, and beverage bottlers for many reasons. It is shatterproof, hygienic, safe, easy to transport, and resealable; releases less CO2 than other packaging options; and, very importantly, is recyclable. Plastic bottles are 100 percent recyclable (even the caps)—and, thanks to modern technology, they can be recycled again and again to create new products. Plastic uses less water and less energy to manufacture than other packaging options, and, because it is so lightweight, less fuel is necessary to transport it. Lately, more and more scientists are highlighting the fact that the use of other packaging options in place of plastic would be significantly worse for the environment.
But those facts don’t discourage critics of bottled water from misrepresenting America’s plastic waste issue as a plastics issue. They often exaggerate or misrepresent research concerning recycling rates and ocean plastics to promote sales bans on bottled water packaged in plastic. Towns along Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for example, have adopted bottled water sales bans backed by a group falsely claiming that recycling is “of little help.” In 2019, the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) banned the sale of single-serve bottled water; however, SFO leadership unfairly allowed sugar-sweetened beverages to remain available. Apparently, those policymakers were unaware that sodas and other less healthy drink options are also packaged in plastic—in fact, they are packaged in more plastic due to production processes (e.g., hot fill) and the need to ensure any carbonation doesn’t leak out. While well-intentioned, such policies are futile because banning one product that is packaged in plastic will not solve America’s waste management issues.
Plastic waste is a complex issue; however, a strong effort is being made to remedy the problems facing the U.S. recycling infrastructure. Waste collectors, plastic manufacturers, government officials, and others are trying to find ways to improve the recycling rate for plastic. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “the amount of recycled plastics is relatively small—three million tons for a 8.7 percent recycling rate in 2018,” but the recycling rates for specific types of plastic, like PET and HDPE which are commonly used for bottled water containers, are more significant. In 2018, the PET recycling rate was 29.1 percent; HDPE was 29.3 percent (bit.ly/EPA2018recyclingrates). Baca explains, “We’re essentially trying to create a much more robust waste management system domestically, and across the world, so that we are creating a more circular system for plastics that allow us to recover, recycle, and eventually reuse some of that plastic.”
A Sea of Misinformation
Any discussion of plastic waste includes the topic of ocean plastics. While ocean plastic pollution is obviously a global issue, bottled water critics continue to embrace the negative narrative that the United States is a top contributor, regularly using it to drive an agenda for anti-plastic legislation.
In 2020, for example, California’s Senate Bill 54, which focused on waste reduction in the state, included estimates for total plastic pollution mass in the ocean by 2050 (bit.ly/CA_SB54). New legislation has been introduced for 2021, and the expectation is that the bill’s language will again include that reference. And Hawaii’s Senate Bill 522, which sought to prohibit the purchase, use, sale, or distribution of single-use plastic beverage containers by state or county agencies, refers to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) as part of the reason why that legislation needed to be adopted—but never once did it mention that the GPGP is mostly (52 percent) made up of plastic lines, ropes, and nets related to fi shing activity (bit.ly/plasticfishingnets). SB 522 also didn’t mention that a 2018 study of the GPGP “found 386 objects with recognizable words or sentences written in 9 different languages. One third had Japanese inscriptions (115 objects) and another third had Chinese (113 objects) (bit.ly/LebretonGPGP). Neither bill passed in its original form, and Hawaii’s bill ultimately halted with the creation of a study group.
The issue of ocean plastics is a valid concern. But efforts to establish anti-plastic measures–such as banning the sale of bottled water, particularly in a country like America that does a very effective job of waste management—are not the solution to the problem. To understand why, you have to understand the true causes of ocean plastic.
Ocean Pollution Inputs
Rivers are a key input for ocean plastics, and they can transport waste from further inland to the coast. According to research published in 2017, the top 20 rivers that transport plastic into the oceans are mostly in Asia (86 percent), along with a few in Africa (7.8 percent), and South America (4.8 percent) (bit.ly/PlasticOceanInput_Top20Rivers). Minimal contributors include Central and North America at 0.95 percent, Europe at 0.28 percent, and Australia-Pacific at 0.02 percent (bit.ly/Oxford_MismanagedPlastic).
“If we aim to address the ocean plastic problem, an understanding of this global picture is important,” Hannah Ritchie notes in her article “Plastic Pollution,” found on the Oxford University website ourworldindata.org. “It highlights the fundamental role of waste management in preventing ocean pollution; whilst countries across North America and Europe generate significant quantities of plastic waste (particularly on a per capita basis), well-managed waste streams mean that very little of this is at risk of ocean pollution. In fact, if North America [and] Europe were to completely eliminate plastic use, global mismanaged plastic would decline by less than 5 percent.”
What the top contributing rivers have in common is that they are located in areas that lack adequate waste management systems. In countries located in South Asia and Sub-Sahara Africa, between 80-90 percent of plastic waste is inadequately disposed of—stored in open or insecure landfills—putting it as risk of polluting rivers and oceans. Conversely, in high-income countries with effective waste management systems, like the United States, “almost no plastic waste is considered inadequately managed” (bit.ly/Oxford_managedplasticwaste). For such countries, litter is the main source of plastic waste at risk of entering the environment— and litter is estimated to amount to approximately 2 percent of total waste generated across all countries.
Waste management has become tougher in recent years due to China’s “National Sword” policy, which banned foreign waste imports beginning in January 2018. China had been importing nearly half of the world’s waste since 1992, according to the United Nations. Imported waste added about 10-13 percent to China’s waste overall (bit.ly/ UN_ChinaSword). Countries have since moved on to find other ways to manage their waste.
For the United States, China’s ban highlighted the fact that, although America does a good job of waste management, the country’s recycling infrastructure needs repair—and consumers need more recycling education.
Putting the Cart Before the Horse
Despite the fact that the U.S. recycling system needs updating in order to better handle the recycling stream, legislators pushed on with other ideas to tackle plastic waste. Critics of plastic have been big advocates of legislation to implement recycled content mandates. While many states have considered such legislation, last year California became the first state to implement a recycled content mandate for plastic beverage containers. The law requires beverage containers that are part of the California Redemption Value (CRV) to contain a recycled content minimum of 15 percent beginning in 2022, 25 percent by 2025, and 50 percent by 2030.
IBWA supports reasonable recycled content requirements for plastic water bottles. However, the association notes that any discussion of recycled content mandates needs to address the following issues: (1) the availability of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) and recycled high-density polyethylene (rHDPE)—especially the limited amount of quality material necessary for bottled water container production and (2) the price volatility of the market. The reality is that the majority of PET and HDPE bottles that are recycled never make it back into food-grade recycled plastic bottles. Data from the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) states that only 1 in 7 post-consumer PET bottles collected for recycling are recycled into new bottles. Most recycled content is used by industries with long-standing contracts with recyclers, such as fiber, thermoform packaging, and strapping.
While the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) has supported recycled content mandates since 2006, APR President Steve Alexander agrees with IBWA that there needs to be a measured approach based on facts when trying to establish a mandate. “It must be based on what the infrastructure is collecting today, where is that material going, and what is a reasonable goal to ensure that the industry can supply the content as required,” Alexander says. “Simply pulling out a percentage requirement out of thin air because it sounds good is folly.”
Regarding California’s new law, Alexander says APR discouraged the state from going beyond a 25 percent mandate beyond 2025. “We showed them how much more material they need to collect to meet the current requirements as well as future requirements.” Nonetheless, since California passed its law, several other states have introduced legislation that would also seek to impose mandates, including New Jersey, New York, and Washington State. Other states, such as Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, and Oregon, are also likely to introduce recycled content legislation this year, according to IBWA Vice President of Government Relations Cory Martin.
Encouraging Consumers to “Put It In The Bin”
If bottlers are going to meet their previously established pledges to use more recycled content and any current or future recycled content mandates, more post-consumer plastics need to be captured. To do that, two things need to happen: the U.S. recycling system needs an overhaul and consumers need a better understanding of what they can—and can’t—put into recycling bins. But proper recycling can be a complicated issue, as there are thousands of jurisdictions with different rules and standards about what materials their recycling systems can handle.
What consumers must understand is that their plastic containers are “recycling gold,” Alexander says. The current supply of recycled plastics meets just 6 percent of the demand for the most common plastics in the United States and Canada because of technical or market barriers, according to Closed Loop Partners (bit.ly/RecapturedPlastic). Establishing a closed loop system and a circular economy would help increase that number.
But, as Baca explains, consumers would first have to recognize the importance of recycling plastics. “People know instinctively that an aluminum can, for instance, is recyclable,” he says. “We have to educate consumers to know instinctively that not just plastic bottles, but all plastics—wrap, packaging, and food containers also have a value that is infinite and can help us achieve a more circular system. The only way we’re going to do that is through more investments in both mechanical and advanced recycling.”
As bottled water is the No.1 packaged beverage in the United States (by volume), recycling education has always been important to the bottled water industry. To promote the benefits of recycling, IBWA launched its recycling-focused website, PutItInTheBin.org, and has been developing social media campaigns to help educate consumers. The PutItInTheBin initiative seeks to increase recycling rates by bringing together like-minded partners (IBWA members and non-members) who can harness the power of social media to educate consumers about the value of always putting recyclables in the bin. As part of this project, IBWA has produced the following educational campaign materials that all IBWA members are encouraged to use to help their consumers learn about the important role they play in recycling and establishing a circular economy:
Pack It Out: This campaign includes inspirational messages that encourage people to “do the right thing” and always recycled—even when a bin isn’t handy. View this campaign at putitinthebin.org/pack-it-out.
Can I Recycle This? Inconsistent and confusing messages about what can, and can’t, be recycled lead to contamination of the recycling stream. To help clear up the messaging for consumers, IBWA created this campaign as a way to “get back to the basics,” and use simple images to show what is recyclable. Learn more at putitinthebin.org/contamination.
Plastic Facts—The Transparent Truth About Plastic: In this campaign, IBWA highlighted the fact that PET, HDPE, and polycarbonate containers are all 100 percent recyclable. It also provided an opportunity to inform consumers about how the bottled water industry has been working harder than any other beverage industry to ensure our packaging supports circularity. Get the facts here: putitinthebin.org/plastic-facts.
Recycling Rex: This video series features Recycling Rex, IBWA’s talking green dinosaur who is both a conservationist and a comical street reporter. As host of these YouTube edu-tainment videos, he educates consumers about the importance of recycling. Recycling Rex talks with students at Emory University about their recycling habits—with the goal of inspiring viewers to not only take action by recycling but also share this video series to help educate their friends about how one small step can have a big impact. Watch the videos at putitinthebin.org/recycling-rex.
#YouCan #WeWill: IBWA’s most recent recycling campaign includes messages that encourage consumers to recycle their plastic beverage containers, while also educating them about some of the proactive environmental stewardship steps the bottled water industry has taken. Find these messages at putitinthebin.org/youcan-wewill.
The Way Forward
Increasing U.S. recycling rates and infrastructure, improving plastic waste management in low-income countries, and developing breakthrough packaging alternatives are complicated issues, but they can be tackled successfully. “We’re not going to solve this problem overnight,” Baca admits. “This is a really difficult, multi-faceted challenge that not just impacts our industry, but impacts consumers and a bunch of others along the way. We acknowledge that more needs to be done, but at the same time we know that we’re on a positive path to having an impact.” BWR