May 13, 2014
North America consumed roughly 16 billion pounds of plastic film (of all types) in 2012 according to the North American Chemistry Council’s 2013 Resin Review. Assuming that a little over 1 billion pounds of film was recycled (Moore Recycling, 2012 National Postconsumer Plastic Bag and Film Recycling Report), this represents a recycling rate of roughly 6 percent (rounded).
More importantly, dissecting the bale audit data from the Moore Recycling report, only about 141.5 million pounds are post-consumer packaging. Again, turning to the Resin Review, roughly 9.7 billion pounds of packaging films and retail bag film were consumed in 2012. Dividing 141.5 million pounds (packaging and retail bag films recycled) by 9.7 billion pounds (rounded) yields a recycling rate of roughly 1.5 percent for packaging films and retail bags.
Admittedly, recycling is not always the best indicator of environmental performance, but it is an important measure of how well we are doing reducing the impacts associated with extracting finite resources for short term consumption.
The move to more flexible plastic packaging is probably inevitable because the lifecycle benefits of the lightest weight package are significant. However, lifecycle analysis does not necessarily account for all of the environmental impacts of natural gas and petroleum extraction, and it certainly does not account for the potential impact on the terrestrial, riverine or marine environment associated with improper disposal of some portion of this packaging.
While it may be the case that between 72 and 74 percent of households have some access to film recycling locations (SERDC Summit 2012, The Next Big Thing, Film!), as evidenced by the low recycling rate, this is not true access. We have found through analyzing participation, recycling and recovery rates throughout the United States that only about 7 to 12 percent of households who have curbside collection of refuse will drive their recyclables to a separate drop-off recycling location. There is no reason to believe that it will be any different for film and bag recycling offered at selected supermarkets or retail locations.
Instead, incorporating flexible packaging films into single stream curbside collection systems will be necessary to achieve high recovery rates, but this will result in much higher costs and contamination rates at most single stream MRFs. Given the large technological constraints associated with introducing these materials into the existing single stream collection and processing system, it seems highly unlikely that the private waste management and recycling industry, or municipal and state governments are going to be able to finance the cost associated with integrating flexible packaging, and other light-weight plastic packaging, into the existing system. New technology and significant new investments are needed to resolve these barriers to recycling flexible plastic packaging.
Just as importantly, flexible packaging that doesn’t get recycled or properly managed brings other high costs to society. The costs to capture flexible packaging in storm drains and sewer systems has been and will continue to be immense, and is completely borne by municipalities and state governments. But the costs, especially to the marine environment of discharging potentially billions of pounds of this material into the marine environment are also immense, and at the current time represent externalities that resin producers, and film manufacturers and packagers do not have to incorporate into their products.
As Matt Prindville points out, there is a need for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to assure that these externalities are accounted for. Unfortunately, EPR for packaging in the United States hasn’t made much traction. This is in part the result of the excellent recycling infrastructure for rigid packaging that the private waste management and recycling companies, and municipal and state governments have created in the U.S. over the past 30 years. It is not clear, watching the British Columbia experiment in full EPR that disrupting this infrastructure is a sensible way to move forward here in the U.S. And even in British Columbia’s case, responsibility for storm water infrastructure and marine litter prevention and cleanup is not specifically addressed by EPR.
Perhaps we should consider a modified EPR approach which acknowledges that existing institutions have invested billions in infrastructure to recover many types of recyclables, but also recognizes that these institutions do not have the capacity to fund prevention of the externalities associated with the continued growth of light weight flexible packaging that is inevitable.
While the recent announcement that Walmart and others will invest $100 million in a new effort to increase recycling (the “Closed Loop Fund”) is a start, thinking globally this is really pocket change for these companies. As the National Recycling Coalition’s BPEC study illustrated 10 years ago, implementation of a comprehensive collection and recycling program to achieve high recovery rates for beverage containers alone was likely to require an investment of over $1 billion per year. It will certainly take an equal or greater investment for a number of years to create the type of recycling system required to make large gains in the light weight plastic packaging recycling rate, as well as prevent the balance of materials that aren’t recycled from entering our riverine, lake and marine environment.
This may seem like a lot of money, but considering that world-wide resin manufacturing is a roughly $500 billion per year industry (and growing rapidly), and that the companies who have pledged with Walmart to spend $100 million have combined revenues probably exceeding $1 trillion per year, the price tag appears manageable.
Let’s recognize that light weight plastic packaging is here to stay, and will continue to grow. However since the externalities associated with its’ use and growth are currently not incorporated in the price of its use, it’s time to couple this growth with serious expenditures by producers to fund the infrastructure necessary to not only assure that this packaging is recycled, but also properly disposed and kept out of our rivers, lakes and oceans.
By Ted Siegler
Ted Siegler is a partner at DSM Environmental Services, Inc., a consulting firm working to advance recycling, materials management and solid waste management strategies.
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