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Erin Simon is the Head of Plastic Waste and Business at the World Wildlife Fund and helped WWF’s latest report, Transparent 2020. The report examines the plastic footprints of its ReSource member companies and provides a detailed look at the challenges and potential solutions for tackling the plastic pollution problem. Plastics are a complicated issue, so we asked Erin to help break things down for us.
ODP: In this progress report you recommend that companies should redesign their plastic packaging, shift to more sustainable inputs and double recycling rates. How is ReSource helping companies achieve these specific goals as they surely aren’t so simple for international companies to implement?
ES: Hundreds of leading companies have made large-scale commitments to address our planet’s growing plastics crisis. They are ready to take on the difficult challenge of translating those commitments to action, but don’t always know how. This is where ReSource: Plastic comes in, it closes the “how” gap for companies.
For us to help get companies to their targets, we must know where they are today. So, the process starts with understanding a company’s footprint to prioritize activities that will yield the maximum impact. That way, companies can better understand their impact on the plastic waste system and chart the data-driven path forward for pinpointing the activities they need to take to create a more circular system. This is done by helping them to identify which interventions will most effectively reduce unnecessary plastic and plastic waste across the company’s plastic footprint, and influence the way plastic is used, collected, and processed globally.
Next, we support the implementation of those activities along with a tracking system to measure progress. We offer companies expert advice, along with a suite of tools that includes step-by-step guides on best practices, and a measurement framework to help quantify reductions in plastic and plastic waste. And finally, we multiply their efforts by enabling collaboration with other companies, stakeholders and governments to share ideas and investments. Because nothing multiplies impact like collaboration, ReSource helps connect a web of stakeholders to find shared solutions, improving the speed and scale of their work.
ODP: Can you speak a bit about the challenge of standardizing plastics use data for each company in your pilot? Is ReSource now closer to creating a “standard language” for companies to talk about where their plastics are coming from and where they’re going?
ES: No companies operate exactly the same – that alone creates a challenge for standardization. Data regarding plastic use is collected differently and barriers including, geography and business structure can create challenges in collecting similar data across the board. But by creating a standardized methodology we can better consolidate requests for information, and better help companies figure out what data they need to inform their decision-making process moving forward.
ODP: In the report, you highlighted that in the United States, polypropylene (PP) (which is used in everything from rugs to food containers) has close to a 0% recycling rate but presents a big opportunity for increased recycling. Why is this important, is there a demand for recycled polypropylene?
ES: There is an important link between the demand for recycled content and the need to increase recycling. According to the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), in North America alone, demand for recycled PP holds at 1 billion pounds annually. You will see that Transparent 2020 highlighted this close dependency between the use of recycled content and global recycling rates. Across the five companies, the average amount of recycled content used is only 8% – that 8% averaged recycled content is significant because these companies have commitment to use much more recycled content than they currently have – so even the leaders are having trouble meeting these goals. That demand is needed to signal to the market the need for more recycled content and as a result, increased recycling rates will lead to increased recycle content. A good example of this is PP in the US. The report targeted the need to increase polypropylene recycling in the U.S., and its recycled content use in corporate supply chains.
ODP: Overall, the report identified the United States as the nation with the biggest opportunity to improve plastic waste management systems. Why is that?
ES: The report identified for these five companies, that there is a need to prioritize developing action plans that focus on country-level opportunities. The United States represents the single biggest opportunity for recycling due to the high sales volumes of these companies coupled with limited recycling infrastructure and high landfill rate (72%). It is important to clarify here that the report said that the US is the biggest opportunity to increase recycling, not the whole waste management system.
There are several reasons why the recycling rate in the US is low. The US recycling system has been dependent on selling their materials to other countries (China mostly) for so many years, and because of that, the investment and ongoing development of the infrastructure and system have not been maintained. There is no national legislation providing a framework for recycling or a sustainable economic plan to maintain it and it is low cost to just send materials to landfill. These are complicated barriers to break down, but it is necessary to support the reform of the US recycling system to meet the targets these companies have set. Collective action, continued demand for recycled content and support for sensible legislation will all be necessary for this to happen.
ODP: We’ve mentioned in our own reporting that a lot of plastic isn’t truly circular. A plastic bottle can’t be recycled into perpetuity without eventually being downcycled. Is technology changing this? Is there a path forward for a circular system for plastic waste that doesn’t require virgin plastics?
ES: It is true today that plastics are not infinitely recyclable – meaning as you say that eventually that material downgrades in quality and is typically downcycled or incinerated/landfilled. There is the potential for technologies to come about that address this and advance the number of uses we can get. With these advancements in technologies however, there will also be the need for the implementation of safeguards, both social and environmental to make sure they are sustainable.
However, that does not mean recycling is not an integral part of the circular system, it is just not the only integral part we need to consider – elimination of unnecessary plastics and shifting to re-use models will also be key. Additionally, today, so little plastic is recycled at all, and even less in closed loop recycling, that there’s still huge potential to make a difference and lower use of fossil virgin plastic. If we can replace the existing non-renewable sources with a combination of both recycled and sustainably sourced biobased plastic, then we can continue to have a source of high-quality plastic in the system. The other side of that is making sure that whatever source the plastic comes from, that it stays out of nature and in the technical system, either through recycling or reuse.
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