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Getting to a Circular Economy

October 22, 2019

In a new report, The Recycling Partnership explores strategies for expanding plastics recycling commitments to include all recycled materials.

In 2018, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation established the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, securing promises from over 400 major businesses—representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally—to work toward a circular economy in which all plastic packaging is 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Given the troubling current state of global plastics pollution, the vision inscribed in the Commitment seems ambitious; but as the June 2019 report of the Commitment states, “all business and government signatories to the Global Commitment are committing to a set of ambitious 2025 targets. They will work to eliminate the plastic items we don’t need; innovate so all plastics we do need are designed to be safely reused, recycled, or composted; and circulate everything we use to keep it in the economy and out of the environment.”

Now, building upon the early success of the Commitment, NERC Advisory Member The Recycling Partnership (TRP) has issued a new report entitled The Bridge to Circularity: Putting the New Plastics Economy into Practice in the U.S. TRP’s report expands upon even the ambitious goals of the New Plastics Economy by stating, “the momentum around plastics waste should provide an entry point to address the broader question of how to build a circular economy for all consumer packaging in the U.S.”

The necessity for such ambition is borne out by a statistic quoted in the report: less than half of all recyclables in the Unites States actually get recycled. Our domestic recycling infrastructure actually contributes further to the challenge: “loosely connected community recycling programs, run by local governments, cities, and counties, provide the only reverse logistics mechanisms available at scale for postconsumer packaging in the U.S.” Against such developments as the pace of packaging innovations, this “last line of defense for packaging waste” is unprepared to deliver a circular economy on its own.

For each challenge identified in the report, however, TRP offers early-stage pathways to involvement by all stakeholders, in the forms of additional funding, collaboration, and other initiatives. TRP’s Unlocking Supply initiative, for example, notes that commitments to using post-consumer recycled content cannot be met at current levels of recycling. The initiative “calls for an initial investment of USD $250 million over five years…to begin bridging the gap in post-consumer supply by strengthening the existing recycling system for all materials.”

Recognizing the transformative nature required to meet such challenges, TRP has dubbed its vision Recycling 2.0. Calling for an additional $250 million investment in grants for a national recycling system, recycling 2.0 “necessitates all stakeholders to come to the table to agree on sustainable solutions that will deliver a uniquely American approach.”

A blog post of a few hundred words cannot possibly do justice to the depth of detail revealed in TRP’s extensive report, and all stakeholders are encouraged to read the report in full. “The critical role this report plays, in contrast to prior and related analyses, is to outline specific measures that provide stakeholders with a means to move quickly from commitments and towards action,” TRP concludes.

That conclusion is echoed by several committed stakeholders. The report “comes at a time when there is momentum among stakeholders to make progress, and we hope this will help to drive collective action to tackle the critical waste issue,” stated Bridget Croke of Closed Loop Partners.

Steve Alexander, of NERC Advisory Member Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), added, “Brands and producers need to be more intentional about design, supply and end market demand.”

He continued, “We welcome this report and look forward to working with The Recycling Partnership, their funders, and beyond, to make sure the goods designed to grab the eye of the consumer at the shelf, can actually be recycled and end up back on that same shelf."

By Robert Kropp, NERC Office Manager.

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