In November 2019 bill H.R. 5115 – the Realizing the Economic Opportunities and Values of Expanding Recycling (RECOVER) Act – was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives seeking $500 million in matching federal grants to eligible governments to invest in improving their recycling infrastructure, programs, and education efforts. On April 16, 2020, companies and industry advocates supporting the RECOVER act, including as reported by The Intercept representation of “60 publicly held companies with a combined revenue of $2.7 trillion,” sent a letter to House leadership claiming that “the time and need is right to seek a program of $1 billion…to reverse the current trend of landfilling recyclable materials, which has only been exacerbated by this (coronavirus) pandemic.” This is a big ask at any time for the purpose of improving waste management when there is no plan, action or funding request for the purpose of improving waste prevention.
The time-tested order of Reduce – Reuse – Recycle, the universally accepted Waste Management Hierarchy, and the more recent loops in a Circular Economy all tell us that source reduction activities like reuse are preferred and more impactful over recycling for eliminating waste and creating new economic values. Yet industry coalitions, corporate funding and government lobbying still pursue a bottom-up strategy for problem-solving a waste crisis while promoting economic and sustainability agendas that offer incremental gains rather than transformative revivals. After 50 years of Earth Days and Keep America Beautiful campaigns targeting pollution and litter, leading to today’s municipal solid waste recycling rate at a flat 35% (9% of plastic), isn’t it time to try a new approach?
It is puzzling when proponents of the plastic industry do not prioritize investments and government grants for the building of a reuse economy. Plastic is an excellent material for the manufacture of reusable products, including industrial reusable packaging like pallets, bins and crates. In many markets, particularly retail, non-plastic single-use transport packaging (i.e. corrugated) is still the dominant player and converting to reusable products offers new material demand channels with superior sustainability outcomes. When built for strength and durability, reusable products can increase plastic resin volumes by weight per unit for product manufacture. This is even the case if replacing lightweight single-use plastic grocery bags with new plastic-based reusable shopping totes.
Reusable packaging products can be a sizeable growth market for all recycled plastics, and innovation around this benefit is just getting started. For example, one RPA member company, Rehrig Pacific, introduced their co-injection technology that incorporates hard-to-recycle plastics into the core of reusable products, helping to divert even more plastic types from the landfill. Growing reusable packaging applications will increase market demand for recycled plastics, transfer value from materials to products (i.e. go from outer to inner loops in a Circular Economy), reduce single-use waste, and aid the recycling industry. Investing in reusable packaging systems would deliver much greater economic benefits and create higher-performing, more resilient and smarter supply chains.
The State of California gets it. The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) is offering the Reuse Grant Program as a pilot program this year with $2 million of funding available to support developments and innovations for reuse. It is still an imbalance compared to the $9 million California Recycled Fiber, Plastic, and Glass Grant Program, but it is a start in the right direction, nevertheless.
Recycling is an essential activity that needs improvement and investment. But any future government spending of tax dollars to address the waste and pollution crisis should not occur unless tied to a better, more robust strategy that incentivizes source reduction and waste prevention. This should not be an either/or scenario, recycling or reuse, but a comprehensive approach to waste that includes both. We should reuse first, then recycle what cannot be reused. The plastics industry should recognize the greater vision here not just for environmental conservation but for their own economic growth as well.
President & CEO
Reusable Packaging Association