Commentary: Let’s get real about plastics, the environment and what we can do about them

It’s no secret that we—all of us—are facing a very real, very serious threat from pollution. Yet, this is where our common ground seems to end.

Environmental challenges are complex and controversial—just look at the vastly different recycling and plastic legislative bills proposed each year across the country. Regardless of politics, there’s no doubt that we’re responsible for undoing the damage that lifetimes of pollution and waste mismanagement have caused to our planet—an almost overwhelming task that can feel far out of our grasp.

Words like “sustainable” are used more and more in our everyday lives—from grocery shopping to home and personal care products to the package that just arrived at the door. But just how sustainable are these options if they ultimately end up in landfills or, worse yet, in the environment?

Recycling and waste management are top-of-mind for many Americans who are looking for immediate, actionable and results-driven steps toward cleaner and greener practices. However, while many states continue to push for plastic bans or restrictions, the results are tepid at best—leading many of us to wonder if there’s a better way.

Although many solutions seem viable in theory, they could exacerbate environmental problems in practice. For example, if Americans move away from plastic and rely almost solely on paper and cardboard for packaging purposes, how would we then address the resulting and significant deforestation?

Sustainability is ultimately about balance, and when we examine our current systems, we can agree much more needs to be done to improve the life cycle of beneficial materials like flexible packaging and plastic to fully reap their benefits.

Flexible packaging is more durable, light and protective than many alternative packaging options, which are the hallmarks of sustainability. Typically composed of two or more materials, including plastic, joined together to protect and preserve contents, flexible packaging is more resource-efficient than many other packaging options because its production requires less water and energy, while its production and transportation result in less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Surprising as it might sound, it is more effective than most other packaging options in protecting products from contamination, spoilage and damage—resulting in less waste in the first place.

While other packaging types might be more readily accepted at municipal recovery facilities (MRFs), they offer fewer protections for consumer products, especially food, while ultimately being more expensive and less sustainable to produce.

Flexible packaging helps to extend the shelf life of food products—the No. 1 contributor to landfills and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—through protection from sunlight, bacteria, odors, moisture, damage from the transportation process and more. This is especially important considering that if food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest contributor to GHG after the U.S. and China. In fact, 52 percent of all flexible packaging is used for food.

Additionally, flexible packaging optimizes volume and weight to maximize storage and transportation efficiency while reducing the amount of packaging waste in need of end-of-life management. Increasing efficiency and reducing packaging waste results in source reduction—the most effective, environmentally preferred method of addressing excess waste.

Still, a problem remains: What do we do with flexible packaging waste? Current recycling infrastructure, which varies greatly from one municipality to another—even within the same state—often is inconsistent, inefficient and not accessible for all residents. Additionally, curbside programs face significant challenges, including shifting commodity economics, stresses on taxpayer-funded collection services and concerns about material quality and end markets.

But there’s a solution, and it already exists with an extended producer responsibility (EPR) approach, a policy in which commercial producers shoulder some of the financial and operational responsibility to process and recycle consumer packaging. Advanced recycling technologies, which currently are used for industrial recycling and waste management, can be implemented for consumers through current and new MRFs to process an expanded list of recyclables, including multimaterial flexible packaging. Realizing infrastructure investment and recycling modernization—with a shared responsibility with taxpayers, municipal governments, producers and consumers—is shown to increase recycling rates and cost-efficiency while reducing environmental impact.

EPR includes fee collection, remittances, reports on packaging use, consumer education and market development, among other responsibilities, and has several benefits for all involved. A fully developed system would include curbside collection options for flexible plastics, removing the need for consumers to bring piles of plastic bags and films to store drop-off locations. Educational programs also would increase consumer awareness of the opportunities for recycling and convenient collection. While costs of this system would be incorporated into the prices of consumer goods, this much-needed investment would benefit the public and businesses through resource efficiency and improved system management.

State governments will need to share responsibility in the new system and do their part from a regulatory standpoint to make it a reality. First and foremost, recycling systems need to be standardized at the state level. Our current system features thousands of municipal recycling systems, often with conflicting labeling requirements, strained finances and outdated machinery. An estimated $9.8 billion would be needed to provide the investment in the U.S. While this might sound like a huge number, it represents less than 1 percent of California’s annual state budget when spread out over five to 10 years.

Once fully operational, a well-run EPR system would provide expanded curbside recycling options for families looking to act more sustainably and more material for manufacturers to make packaging from postconsumer recycled content. Producers and consumers also would benefit from standardized labeling requirements, increased material recovery and streamlined waste management systems. Finally, everyone would benefit from fewer carbon emissions and the use of natural resources as we work together to reduce packaging and plastic pollution and preserve our planet for future generations.

Alison Keane is president and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association, Annapolis, Maryland. Visit www.flexpack.org for more information. 

 

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