US Plastics Pact releases anticipated 'problematic' materials list

The U.S. Plastics Pact has identified 11 plastic packaging items in its new Problematic and Unnecessary Materials list that are “not currently reusable, recyclable, or compostable at scale in the U.S.” and likely will not be by 2025. The pact calls for these items to be phased out by that year. 

The group, part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) worldwide Plastics Pact network, announced the list on Tuesday as the first step in its broader goal to speed up circular economy strategies for plastic in the U.S. The pact is led by The Recycling Partnership and the World Wildlife Fund and includes about 100 members, known as voluntary “activators,” such as the Solid Waste Association of North America, National Waste and Recycling Association, Northeast Recycling Council, Nestle, TerraCycle, Coca-Cola, Clorox, Walmart, local governments and others.

Problematic and Unnecessary Materials List
Cutlery, stirrers and straws (that are not reusable, compostable or recyclable)*
Intentionally added PFAS
Non-detectable pigments such as carbon black
Opaque or pigmented PET (any color other than transparent blue or green)
Oxo-degradable additives, including oxo-biodegradable additives
PETG in rigid packaging
Labels made of problematic materials or that use adhesives, inks, materials or features that render a package detrimental or non-recyclable per the APR Design Guide
Polystyrene, including expanded polystyrene
PVC, including polyvinylidene chloride
*when provided as an “ancillary item” to the main container

The U.S. Plastics Pact, formed in 2020, aims to make all plastic packaging 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. The group also seeks to recycle or compost 50% of plastic packaging by that same date, and further intends to ensure packaging has at least 30% recycled or bio-based content. International counterparts include the Canadian Plastics Pact and other pacts around the world.

U.S. Plastics Pact members produce about 33% of the plastic packaging included in its scope, according to a news release. The items on the list may comprise a small share of the overall waste stream, but the pact considers them particularly challenging materials to manage at end of life.

The group pledged to create the “problematic materials” list by 2021, an essential first step to achieving the other major recycling and reusability goals by the 2025 deadline, said Emily Tipaldo, executive director of the U.S. pact. 

“The elimination of these problematic and unnecessary materials will enable advancements in circular package design, increase opportunities for recovery, and enhance the quality of recycled content available for manufacturers,” she said in a news release.

All members of the pact had a chance to vote on the list, and while not everyone is happy with the final list, signatories have still pledged to do their part to avoid or phase out the items, Tipaldo added in an interview. In general, recyclers have expressed the most optimism in the final items, she said, but “to date, where we’ve gotten greater pushback so far is really from upstream industry, and from the material producers and suppliers.”

Initial reactions

Signatories to the pact include Eastman, a producer of plastics including PETG which was deemed problematic in the new list. The overall list was not a surprise, said Holli Alexander, strategic initiatives manager for global sustainability at Eastman, “but as a material supplier, there are definitely some things on the list that may not be the best news for us.”

Eastman has already been working for the last few years “to try and better understand PET recycling in the U.S. and try to make sure that the products and the materials that we are producing” are compatible with recycling, she said. Now included in that discussion will be how the company will manage its PETG.

However, Alexander is optimistic about the end goals of the pact and says it’s important for the company to be involved in order to collaborate with players at every point in the plastics value chain. Eastman has recently made some recycling investments, specifically in chemical recycling, and one goal for its involvement in the pact is helping to drive further improvements in U.S. recycling infrastructure. 

Other plastics makers criticized the pact’s list, including the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which said this could hinder the nation’s recycling goals.

“The U.S. Plastics Pact lacked a transparent third-party, data-driven and scientific approach, and its process seems to be rooted in ideology and a predetermined, misguided outcome,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of ACC’s plastics division, in a statement. “In fact, the list of plastic materials they suggest be eliminated by 2025 will only hinder the acceleration of a circular economy, slow progress toward a lower carbon future, and reduce our ability to use greater amounts of recycled material in plastic packaging.”  

Baca stated ACC has already pledged that plastic packaging must include at least 30% recycled plastic by 2030, and that the U.S. Plastics Pact list could worsen food waste or “promote the use of many materials with a higher carbon footprint than plastics” instead.

Jan Dell of The Last Beach Cleanup, a nonprofit, added that naming items such as PVC could cause more harm than good in the years leading up to the 2025 goal.

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