Recycling | Regulations

Recycling | Regulations

The US Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act: What you need to know

The US Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act, if enacted, could assist US-based packaging businesses in their efforts towards reducing plastic waste. However, would it be the best way forward to help the environment? Jessie Paige surveys what this legislation could mean for the packaging industry.

Cover image: Shutterstock

The US Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act was introduced to congress in June by Representatives Haley Stevens and Anthony Gonzalez and aims to improve the global competitiveness of the US recycling industry.

The bill, if ratified, intends to reduce plastic waste, support research and development (R&D) into recycling and microplastics, and improve the global competitiveness of the US recycling industry.

But what could this act mean for US-based packaging companies and how are businesses preparing for this possible change?

Why was the act created?

In 2018, the Chinese government stopped accepting most foreign recyclables, leaving US cities previously reliant on Chinese trade for their recycling needs unsure of what to do.

Recycling programs across America began to be scrapped and, instead, cities had to resort to incinerating recyclables or turning them to landfill. This exacerbated the plastic waste crisis in the US.

“We can no longer deny that we face a plastic waste crisis,” explains Congresswoman Stevens. “In 2018, the US woke up to the fragile predicament of our plastic waste management system. No longer able to ship our plastic waste to international markets, US cities were forced to cut long-standing recycling programs. Instead, they had to resort to incinerating recyclables or tossing them in landfills.”

“There are plenty of reasons for why and how we got here; however, a major factor is because we failed as a nation to invest in domestic recycling infrastructure and policies to account for the growing demand for plastic.”

Stevens goes on to explain that the US recycles only 9% of plastic waste and that the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act will “help develop a world-leading US industry in advanced plastics recycling technologies, and unleash the innovative potential of our nation to address our plastic waste crisis and generate greater value from the plastics we do produce.”

We failed as a nation to invest in domestic recycling infrastructure and policies.

Response from US packaging industry

Mark Ushpol, managing director of sustainable packaging supplier DS Smith North America, says that DS Smith backs the new act.

“We support the US Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act, which will help to reduce plastic waste, accelerate research and continue to move the U.S. toward a true circular economy,” Says Ushpol. “In 2019, we sold our plastics division to reinforce our position as a leader in sustainable packaging with a clear focus on our fiber-based business.

“Only a small part of all plastics enters into any kind of circular economy, and public sentiment is growing for sustainable alternatives. By moving to more sustainable solutions, like corrugated [fiberboard], companies can offer true sustainability as a renewable resource.”

Similarly, plastic manufacturer Hi-cone calls focus to the ways the US is currently gearing towards sustainability.

“There is growing momentum towards sustainability and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12 has put a spotlight on the role of businesses sustainable consumption and production.” Says Shawn Welch, vice president and general manager of Hi-cone. “We have an opportunity to transform the packaging industry, starting with innovating new products that can be produced with recycled materials and less natural resources.

“Hi-Cone partners with Ocean Conservancy and is part of the Ellen McArthur Foundation New Plastic Economy Global Commitment to advance the circular economy and prevent plastic waste from entering the environment.”

We can no longer deny that we face a plastic waste crisis.

Endorsements from US organisations

“Plastics play a number of critical roles in our society, and their value extends beyond initial use,” says The American Chemistry Council (ACC) in a statement released following the announcement of the act. “America’s plastic makers are working with industry partners, government and nonprofits to build a more circular economy for plastics so these resources are harnessed and redeployed to benefit our communities and ecosystems.”

Plastics Industry Association vice president of advocacy & voice Brendan Thomas also shows support for the act. “It’s no wonder the plastics industry has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years,” He says.

“The material is critical to healthcare, nutrition, transportation, electronics - nearly every economic sector - and we’re always finding new applications. American energy independence has also created an abundant supply of feedstocks, making plastic an affordable choice for businesses and consumers.

“But US recycling is behind the times,” Thomas explains. “The Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act would gather private and public sector expertise to update recyclability standards, develop new collection and sorting methods, and promote public awareness. It would advance chemical recycling, composting and other longtime industry goals.

“The bill would supplement the efforts of plastics companies who are already leading worldwide sustainability and recycling efforts. The object is to prevent waste from entering the environment, not bans on materials or products, and our association looks forward to adding our input to the process.”

US recycling is behind the times.

Criticism of the act

While the act has garnered support from plastics manufacturers, not everyone thinks that this bill is the best way forward for the environment.

Sarah Edwards, head of the New York office at environmental consultant Eunomia Research & Consulting, says that the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act does not overcome the main challenges the US faces when it comes to plastic.

“While we are far from understanding the full consequences of plastics in our environment, what we do know is that it should not be there. Our job as consumers, producers and waste managers is to stop it getting there either by reducing its use or ensuring what is produced is collected and processed so it can be made into new products,” says Edwards.

Image: Artem Zavarzin /

“It’s not that we don’t know how to collect and process plastics in the US, the problem we face is that there is no legislation requiring plastic to be collected for recycling or targets placed on the amount that needs to be recycled. This means material continues to be landfilled, incinerated or leaked into the environment. Landfill - the alternative to recycling - is so cheap in the US that the recycling process can’t compete on price.

“These challenges will not be overcome by the activities and funding allocation set out in the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act. The five-year program will not increase the 9% plastics recycling rate in the US in the short or medium term, and it’s not clear to me why the federal government should subsidise the private sector to find end-of-life solutions to the products they place on the market.”

Greenpeace USA plastics campaigner Melanie Duchin is of a similar opinion to Edwards, believing that the act is misleading and will exacerbate environmental issues created through plastics lifecycle.

“Greenpeace does not support this bill. First, it is framed around plastic ‘recycling’, which is a misleading term. True recycling prevents the front end production of more virgin plastic,” explains Duchin.

“Today’s use of the term ‘plastic recycling’ is typically downcycling: for example, a plastic soda bottle is turned into a jacket or carpet, which just delays the amount of time it takes to get to a landfill or incinerator, and does not stop the front end production of more virgin plastic.

“Greenpeace advocates solutions to plastic pollution that reduce and eventually eliminate the need for single-use plastics. These include systems of reuse and refill that eliminate the need for throwaway packaging in the first place.”

When asked about how the act could affect packaging companies, Duchin says that “packaging companies have a choice: continue to pass on throwaway plastic packaging to consumers, or reduce and eventually eliminate single-use plastic packaging for the betterment of the environment, climate, and public health”.

Greenpeace does not support this bill.

The act would give packaging companies less incentive to reduce plastic

Duchin adds that the proposal, should it become law, would mean packaging companies would not feel incentivised to reduce plastic packaging, resulting in packaging companies becoming an even bigger part of the plastic pollution problem.

“If this proposal becomes law, it will exacerbate every environmental issue created throughout the plastic lifecycle, all of which disproportionately impact poor communities and communities of colour,” she says. “They include climate change, toxic emissions to the air, land and water, more plastic waste in landfills and incinerators, as well as littering the land and choking our oceans.”

Duchin suggests that the US government should instead be “guided by science to protect public health”, rather than giving licence to “the plastic industry’s agenda of producing more and more plastic and the false solution of plastic recycling. The government should embrace efforts to reduce the county’s production and use of single-use plastic”.

Cover image: Shutterstock

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