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US Plastics Pact Roadmap Has Potential but Real Work has Only Just Begun

As part of the US Plastics Pact (US Pact), three AMBR members – Eureka Recycling, Ecology Center (Berkeley, CA) and Eco-Cycle – have participated in developing the first national strategy to advance a circular economy for plastic. This marks the first time we have seen an intentional effort across the entire supply chain to co-develop the future of recycling and packaging together. Major consumer goods companies and packaging suppliers have tremendous power to address plastic pollution, and as recyclers, it is critical that we are at the table where the decisions are being made so that we can ensure that recycling is a viable, authentic solution to reduce plastic pollution and not a greenwashing strategy to enable increasing production of plastics. 

Many of the US Pact goals and the statements released in the Roadmap to 2025 would not even have been on the table for discussion just three years ago, and this signifies how fast the tide has turned on plastic pollution. Massive public pressure from groups such as the Break Free from Plastics movement and a growing wave of local and state policies has resulted in consumer goods companies finally coming to the table and agreeing, at least in principle, to the very policies and investments that they have ardently opposed for decades. As recyclers, we can admit that it still feels a bit surreal to have a multi-stakeholder group advocating for the big three policies that will do the most to advance plastics recycling: extended producer responsibility, deposit return systems, and minimum recycled content standards.

However, the sad truth is that the history of plastics recycling is filled with broken promises to voluntarily use more recycled content and increase recycling rates. Yet recycling rates continue to decline and even the most successful of recyclable plastics, PET bottles, are recycled at less than 30%. So, while AMBR would like to be optimistic that we have turned a new page, the real work has only yet begun, and it remains to be seen if the US Pact will finally break the mold of broken voluntary promises and accelerate the real changes needed to address our plastics crisis. 

Despite these bold new commitments and the allure of a new dawn ahead, the real work is just beginning and several contentious issues loom in the immediate future. AMBR will continue to work within the US Pact to advance and hold the line on these key areas: 

  • Rapidly eliminate problematic and unnecessary plastics: This action step holds the key to prioritizing waste reduction over recycling, and to pushing for standardization in plastic packaging in order to optimize the recycling system. However, no company wants their packaging labelled problematic or unnecessary, so this will be a contentious issue among companies both within and outside of the US Pact. AMBR sees the opportunity for the US Pact to move more quickly on this front by adopting this list of eight problem plastics to eliminate from the UK Plastics Pact
    • Disposable plastic cutlery 
    • All polystyrene (#6) packaging 
    • Cotton buds with plastic stems 
    • Plastic stirrers 
    • Plastic straws 
    • Oxo-degradables that break down to create microplastics 
    • PVC (#3) packaging 
    • Disposable plastic plates and bowls

In addition, AMBR also supports the UK Pact’s goals to investigate another 19 plastic types for potential elimination, including film plastics, black plastics, plastic trays, and plastic cups and lids. This aligns closely with AMBR’s work to eliminate #3, #6, #7 plastic packaging as a key starting point to standardize recycling.

  • Prioritize and expand reuse solutions: While the overarching US Pact goals recognize reuse on the same tier as recycling, there is insufficient attention given to reuse, refill and packaging reduction strategies throughout the Roadmap and US Pact discussions. By contrast, the UK Plastics Pact has strong reuse goals and each company is committed to reuse targets. Real change means doing more than just paying lip service to reuse and AMBR supports more aggressive and quantitative reuse plans, goals and commitments within the US Pact to ensure that reuse is a key element of every company’s plan to address plastics.    
  • Focus first on optimizing what works: While there is significant work to do across plastics recycling, we will have the most impact in the shortest amount of time by focusing first on scaling up proven PET and HDPE recycling based on best practices in product design and materials collection, processing and end markets. By contrast, chemical recycling technologies that recycle plastics back into new products is not a short-term solution, and its long-term financial, operational and environmental viability remains to be proven, which makes it a dangerous distraction to the real proven work that can be put in place today.
  • Get grounded in the complex reality of flexible film plastics: The elephant in the room in the US Pact goals and discussions is the future of flexible film plastics. These materials have little to no value in secondary markets and are extremely problematic to collect and process in Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs). Rather than trying to force recyclers to accept these materials, much more work is needed to look at packaging innovations, reuse and refill alternatives, store collection programs and other solutions to reduce, reuse and recover flexible film packaging.
  • Set targets to reduce plastics production, not just recycle more. While the US Pact goal to recycle 50% of plastic packaging is an ambitious target with the potential to radically scale up US recycling, simply recycling 50% of an ever-increasing amount of plastic waste will not solve the problems facing us. We need to recycle more at the same time that production is capped and decreases. This is similar to greenhouse gas emissions reductions–companies and communities set targets to reduce emissions by 50% below 1990 levels, for example, rather than simply 50% of an ever-increasing amount. AMBR will continue to push the envelope on the details of the reporting systems to drive the most impactful targets that maximize environmental and social benefits.  

AMBR members will continue to actively engage with the US Pact to accelerate and maximize these voluntary commitments. We will also continue to advocate for policy solutions that codify these commitments, develop enforcement mechanisms and hold all companies accountable to reducing plastic pollution and production. Together with our recycling industry and movement partners, we will articulate and push for real solutions to improve recycling and invest more in reuse, and advocate for a transparent, accountable system that focuses on recycling right over just recycling more.