Friday, August 19th, 2016

A New Study May Make Conversations about Plastics Easier

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Steve Russell, vice president of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division

A guest post by Steve Russell, vice president of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division.

Has this happened to you? You’re at a dinner party or family gathering or neighborhood get-together. Someone asks you what you do. A conversation about plastics ensues. And you struggle to find a really simple way to explain plastics’ many benefits and contributions to sustainability.

I’m guessing we’ve all been there.  And the answer just got easier to explain.

New study

A new study by the environmental consulting firm Trucost uses “natural capital accounting” methods that measure and value environmental impacts, such as consumption of water and emissions to air, land, and water. The authors describe it as the largest natural capital cost study ever conducted for the plastics manufacturing sector.

The results?  “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” finds that the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than if plastics were replaced with alternative materials.

Trucost found that replacing plastics with alternatives would increase environmental costs associated with consumer goods from $139 billion to $533 billion annually.

Why is that? Predominantly because strong, lightweight plastics help us do more with less material, which provides environmental benefits throughout the lifecycle of plastic products and packaging. While the environmental costs of alternative materials can be slightly lower per ton of production, they are greater in aggregate due to the much larger quantities of material needed to fulfill the same purposes as plastics.

Think about it. Every day, strong, lightweight plastics allow us to ship more product with less packaging, enable our vehicles to travel further on a gallon of gas, and extend the shelf-life of healthful foods and beverages. And all of these things help reduce energy use, carbon emissions, and waste.

Why do this study?

This new study follows an earlier report called “Valuing Plastics (2014)” that Trucost conducted for the United Nation’s Environment Programme (UNEP). “Valuing Plastics” was Trucost’s first examination of environmental cost of using plastics. While clearly an important study, it begged the key question: compared to what? After all, consumer goods need to be made out of something.

So ACC’s Plastics Division commissioned Trucost to compare the environmental costs of using plastics to alternative materials, as well as to identify opportunities to help plastics makers lower the environmental costs of using plastics. The expanded study also broadened the scope of the earlier work to include use and transportation, thus providing a more complete picture of the full life cycle of products and packaging.

We see “Plastics and Sustainability” as a contribution to the burgeoning and vital global discussion on sustainability. Like any single study, it doesn’t “prove” that plastics are always better for the environment than alternatives. But it is an important study based on a rigorous and transparent methodology. And it provides a fuller picture of the environmental benefits of using plastics.

“Plastics and Sustainability” provides the plastics value chain with important information on plastics and sustainability so that we all can make better decisions. The entire plastics value chain is engaged in discussions with policymakers, brand owners, retailers, recyclers – and consumers – about how to be good corporate citizens and contribute to sustainability. A better understanding of the life cycle of materials will better inform these discussions and should lead all of us to more sustainable materials management decisions. This study’s findings also will help inform us how to further reduce the environmental cost of plastics.

In other words, making smart choices about what we produce and how we produce it will benefit people and the planet.

New perspective

So in light of this new study, next time you or I struggle for the right words, perhaps let’s try this:

“Did you know that replacing plastics with alternatives would actually increase environmental costs by nearly four times?”

Let me know how it goes.

You can find more information about the Trucost study and some interesting visualizations of the findings here.

Monday, July 13th, 2015

Don’t Blame the Big Blue Bin

The Washington Post’s Defeatist Attitude Toward Recycling Harms Industry

By Kim Holmes, SPI’s Senior Director of Recycling and Diversion

SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association wants to clarify several points concerning recycling that were misrepresented in Aaron C. Davis’ June 20, 2015 article, “American Recycling is Stalling, and the Big Blue Bin is One Reason Why.”Blue Bin

Davis’ article states that, “recycling in recent years has become a money sucking enterprise,” and suggests that recycling cannot be done profitably.  It is true that some Material Recovery Facilities – or MRFs – are experiencing a confluence of factors that are creating an economically challenging business environment.

But, not all MRFs are operating in the red.  During difficult times, MRFs need to be agile, and sometimes willing to invest in equipment that will produce better quality bales of materials in more efficient ways. Unfortunately, many MRFs continue to use outdated equipment and would operate more efficiently if they invested in state-of-the-art machinery similar to what is more widely used in Europe and in some areas of the U.S. It is also important to note that Waste Management’s experience, as stated by Davis, is not representative of what is occurring at every MRF in America.

As a trade association representing the plastics industry, we work with our members to promote the benefits of recycled content to drive sustainability across the plastics manufacturing industry. In our industry, a reduction in the price of new plastics has at times narrowed the cost savings that might be found by using recycled plastics – but, that’s temporary. Indeed, there are key drivers that help sustain demand for post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastics, even when they don’t present cost savings.  Those include: publically stated corporate commitments to use PCR, use of recycled content as a market differentiator, and ecolabels that encourage, and in some cases, require use of recycled content for certain products.

And while it is true that some consumers unintentionally contaminate their blue bins by depositing inappropriate items, the use of blue bins results in a significant increase in desirable recyclable commodities.  The systematic increase in recyclables that come with “the big blue bin” is why we, along with many others, have invested in programs like the Recycling Partnership.  The Recycling Partnership helps communities transition to the blue bins to increase access to recycling, and that effort is coupled with proper consumer education so an increase in contamination can be mitigated. The claim made in the article that, “Consumers have indeed been filling the bigger bins, but often with as much garbage as recyclable material,” is a false generalization. Statements like this are misleading, and frankly dissuade people for participating in recycling.

Finally, we have deep concerns about the suggestion that government intervention may be necessary to “encourage investment and ensure that profit remain a public benefit.”  Market-based solutions that work with the public sector, such as the Recycling Partnership and the Closed Loop Fund, are growing and generating positive results.  We need to support these and other privately funded efforts rather than looking to the government for solutions. Government intervention can create systems that inadvertently pick winners and losers, meaning some otherwise profitable recyclers can be put out of business when the market is disrupted.  It’s not uncommon for government intervention to create unintended, and many times, unwanted externalities.

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Turning the Tide on Plastic Bag Bans and Taxes

Over the last 10 years environmental activists have attempted to portray plastic bag bans and taxes as good for the environment. And until recently, they have been successful in their efforts to promote bag bans and taxes, because their claims haven’t been subjected to scrutiny. That’s why the APBA exists: to provide the facts and reveal the activists’ claims to be what they really are—myths.

apba-logoEdgeThere’s a reason that activists have pursued bag bans and taxes at the state and local levels. It’s because these municipal governing bodies historically have less time and energy to spend delving into the unexpected consequences of a certain act or ordinance—operating, in the famous words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, as “laboratories of democracy” and enacting experimental policies.

This type of legislation serves a vital purpose in American democracy, but there is a side effect. It is that bad policies often get passed without the appropriate questions being asked, and environmental activists have taken advantage of this fact. Based on the erroneous and wholly baseless assumption that all plastics are bad—and hinging on the equally false misconception that plastic bags are a major component of litter, state and local legislators have been persuaded by environmental activists to enact policies based on these misguided principles.

There are four questions every state and local legislature should ask about any proposed policy, questions that would reveal the hollow core at the heart of every argument in favor of a plastic bag ban or tax: Is this necessary? Will this be effective? Is this popular? What will be the outcome?

Is this necessary?

Plastic bags traditionally constitute about one percent of litter in most of the U.S. and, according to the EPA, represent only 0.4 percent of the municipal waste stream. No amount of litter is acceptable, but it is crucial that legislators understand that plastic bags are not a significant component of litter and that this is a behavioral rather than material issue. A smarter policy approach would be to educate consumers to change their behavior rather than to unfairly target a single recyclable material. Further, the fact that plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable makes it hard to argue that banning or taxing them is necessary. An effective end-of-life solution already exists.

Will this be effective?plastic shopping bags in use

Because plastic bags are a fraction of litter and an even smaller component of the municipal waste stream, any attempt to ban or tax them is unlikely to move the needle on litter or landfills. Why use a sledgehammer when a scalpel will do? If state and local legislators are serious about promoting thoughtful and effective environmental policy, they can organize litter cleanups and promote recycling and recycling education. Bag bans and taxes don’t work. The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) from Huntington Beach, California proves this, and that’s why the city repealed its ordinance.

Is this popular?

Ask any of the many municipalities (Homer, Alaska; Basalt, Snowmass, Durango and Fort Collins, Colorado; Darien, Connecticut and Newport, Oregon) that have reversed their ordinances following public input or outcry. Or, look at the disastrous implementation of Dallas’ bag tax and the opinions of residents frustrated by the city’s hastily-enacted and poorly-considered regulation. You also could look to the reaction to California’s statewide bag ban: in less than 90 days the APBA collected the signatures of over 800,000 of California voters who oppose the legislation. In general, plastic bag bans and taxes aren’t popular.

The Anacostia River

The Anacostia River

What is the outcome?

As the Washington Post recently reported, the government of the District of Columbia has made about $10 million in revenue from its bag tax. It is clear that the revenue generated is not going to serve the stated purpose of the ordinance. Funds have been used to pay for things like field trips and personnel expenses instead of on Anacostia River cleanup. And there are other unintended consequences of bag bans and taxes: numerous cities with ordinances have seen an uptick in reported theft from stores; trash bag purchases tend go up in municipalities with ordinances because people can’t reuse their plastic retail bags; according to the NCPA, commerce is displaced from businesses operating in areas with plastic bag bans and taxes to businesses operating just outside of the perimeter that still offer plastic bags at no cost; and, reusable bags largely go unwashed and thereby transmit infectious foodborne diseases. All of these are outcomes of bag bans and taxes, and there’s no actual reduction in litter or a change in the makeup of local landfills.

Conclusions

When plastic bag bans and taxes were first promoted by activists, few legislators asked the right questions. But now state and local governments and the media are beginning to push back, and the tide is turning against bans and taxes.  That’s what SPI and the APBA have been saying all along: that plastic bag bans and taxes are not thoughtful or effective environmental policies, and we’re glad others are seeing the light.

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Out of the Mouths of Babes: Student Perspectives on Plastic Film and Bag Recycling from the SPI/JASON Learning “Think Outside the Bag!” Contest

JASONLogoOf all the excellent material in the more than 100 entries received as part of SPI and JASON Learning’s recently-concluded “Think Outside the Bag!” contest, the “What We Learned” or “Challenges We Faced” slide (or some variant thereof) that was included in each of the submitted presentations might be the most illuminating for the plastics industry at large.

Hosted by SPI’s Flexible Film and Bag Division, the “Think Outside the Bag!” competition challenged young people to get creative by designing a poster and a public awareness campaign that aimed to get their fellow students, schools and communities involved in collecting and recycling plastic bags and other flexible plastic film products. It also asked participating students to discuss what they learned in the process, and to identify the challenges they faced in trying to get people to recycle their plastic films and bags. Across the three participating grade bands (K-4, 5-8, 9-12) some similar insights and challenges kept coming up.spi_logo_2000x1007

“The people we knew were most supportive.”

The wisdom of the “Think Globally, Act Locally” mantra proved itself once again in the “Think Outside the Bag!” contest, as most participants found the most support closest to home. Whether it was their classmates, their parents, their friends or whomever, most entries found reaching out and asking the people they knew to help out to be a simple, effective start. It’s a testament to the power of starting locally, and also a testament to how infectious the recycling mentality can be. All it takes is one ardent recycler to turn the residents of an entire household into advocates, and that’s a powerful thing to remember.

“We found out that most plastic films are from things that we do not expect like bread bags or newspaper bags or even the container around salad.”

Participating students learned a great deal about plastics from the contest, most notably the fact that bags aren’t the only plastic films that are recyclable. Of the students that knew bags were recyclable, it seemed that not as many of them knew that food and product wrapping and other items fell into the same category.

Recycled plastic bags image“It wasn’t as easy as we thought to convince some people that recycling plastic bags is important.”

Most of the participating students cited concern for the environment as a major reason why they felt plastic film and bag recycling was such a worthy cause. Nonetheless, getting people on board with how vital the recycling process is wasn’t as simple a process as some students hoped or expected. Many of the entries relied on their poster to make their environmental message as clearly as possible, and aimed to inspire people to think about their use of plastic films and bags in order to reduce litter and make a meaningful impact on the environment.

“After some brainstorming we started presenting the poster to our families, showing them the process and specifically that plastic bags and plastic film COULD be recycled.”

Not-so-simply put, it’s hard to get people to recycle something when they don’t know that the thing you want them to recycle is recyclable.

The most basic, fundamental challenge that students encountered that could be keeping plastic film and bag recycling rates mired around 12 percent is the fact that, across the country, a lot of people still don’t think plastic bags or films are even recyclable. More than 90 percent of the nation has access to plastic film and bag recycling (most commonly through a retail take-back program), but this myth still exists.

Having to essentially educate fellow students, friends, family and community members and business leaders about the recyclability of these materials was a common refrain in terms of the biggest hurdles the students faced in their efforts, with some participants saying that conducting their campaign was a two-step process: first they had to get the hang of teaching people, then they had to actually present their awareness campaign.

In short, the students had to educate themselves before they educated their families and friends, and once they did it seemed that simply knowing that plastic films and bags were recyclable went a long way toward getting someone to actually change their behavior, and go through the process of recycling these materials.

See the winning entries on SPI’s website here and JASON’s website here.

Monday, February 9th, 2015

SPI President and CEO: Super Bowl Waste Management Ad Misleads on Plastic Bag Recycling

By SPI President and CEO William R. Carteaux

A Waste Management advertisement that ran during the 2015 Super Bowl incorrectly suggested that plastic bags aren’t recyclable. They very much are. In fact, the lightweight plastic bags the ad suggests aren’t recyclable are 100% recyclable, thanks in great part to a number of programs put together by the plastics industry and its partners.

Some background on the ad: Waste Management created the spot as part of its “Recycle Often. Recycle Right.” campaign. The initiative’s goals are noble—improving quality at the curb, reducing contamination in materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and for recyclers. These goals are shared part and parcel by SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, at least until they get to the point where they suggest that plastic bags should be treated like trash. The ad in question depicts two animated curbside bins, one for recycling and one for garbage. The recycling one appears to be choking on a plastic retail bag, which it then coughs up as a voice says “not all plastics can be recycled” and the bag is collected by the other bin, the one made for garbage.

William R. Carteaux, President and CEO, SPI

William R. Carteaux, President and CEO, SPI

Waste Management sacrificed the facts for the sake of cuteness. Plastic bags are typically made from low-density polyethylene, a material that’s 100% recyclable. For example, one company, NOVOLEX, a member of SPI and the SPI-supported American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), created a program years ago called “Bag-2-Bag,” which established over 30,000 plastic bag, film and wrap recycling points at grocery stores and retailers across the country. Customers can, and do, take their plastic bags back to these stations the next time they go shopping, and NOVOLEX can, and does, collect them and recycle them into new bags. Each year the company recycles more than 35 million pounds of plastic bags and polyethylene films (including product wrapping and dry cleaner bags) into new bags and other eco-friendly raw materials, demonstrating that these products are quite recyclable.

If Waste Management’s problem with plastic bags is that, when included in the recycling stream, they can gum up their machines and the operation of the MRFs, there are two solutions: they can buy equipment that enables them to recover plastic bags in the MRF environment (technologies that enable this are widely employed in Europe and in select MRFs in North America) and they can work with SPI and the APBA to educate consumers to recycle these materials properly through return-to-retail collection locations.

SPI applauds Waste Management for its dedication to sustainable practices and raising public awareness about recycling, but that’s what makes this ad such a disappointment. Rather than misleading the public, we should be working together to make plastic bag recycling easier and widespread. That way this valuable material can go on to have a second life as a new bag or another product, like plastic lumber. If the public listened to Waste Management’s Super Bowl ad, the effects could be devastating, and instead of slowing down operations in Waste Management’s MRFs or ending up in the appropriate recycling receptacles, plastic bags could end up in Waste Management’s landfills.

Plastic bags often don’t belong in a typical recycling bin, sure, but they also don’t belong in a landfill. Let’s work together to eliminate misconceptions about plastic bag recycling, and increase plastic bag recycling education.