Concerns about pollution and recycling efficiency continue to reverberate among the public, industry veterans said at the Plastics Recycling Conference, held March 7–9 in National Harbor, Md. At the March 8 plenary session, a panel of experts discussed the pressures plastics recycling stakeholders face within a larger movement in society to sustainably manage materials.

“What I’m thinking about in terms of the role of policy [and] the role of design for the [consumer products] brands, out of all of the things that we’re talking about, [is] that ultimately our vision is that material still has value,” says Rachel Goldstein, North America policy director for food and pet care conglomerate Mars, Inc. “You open a [product]; now that [packaging] becomes new feedstock for a new package or a new product. Just thinking about what that [material] could look like in the future and maintaining the value through its whole lifecycle and whatever its next iteration would be.”

Recycling policies and regulations in the U.S. will reflect larger global trends, predicted Shane Trimmer, legislative director for Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., and Kaitlyn Trent, plastics campaigner for Greenpeace. Trimmer pointed to U.S. states that have deposit laws and report higher recycling rates of beverage containers than states that don’t have those programs as proof government incentives can aid recycling. “We need the policies to embolden the actors on the ground to be able to collect more [materials],” Trimmer says.

Huffman is one of the sponsors of the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2021, which contains extended producer responsibility mandates. “By having the brands invest into the system for the materials they are putting out there … There is more sustainable finding for recyclers on the ground, that creates this end market,” Trimmer says. “If you complement that with policies like minimum recycled content standards, not only is there a market for it, [but also manufacturers] must use this material.”

ISRI’s position on product stewardship can be found here. You can read ISRI’s position on minimum recycled content legislation here.

Trent says environmental activists were pleased the U.N. Environment Assembly voted March 2 to create a legally binding global treaty on plastics. “We know that by the end of this year we’re going to have more of a document to work on,” she says. “I’m interested to see how the U.S. plays into that.” ISRI has not stated a position on the proposed treaty.

Supply chain instability has become a hard reality for businesses since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and plastics recyclers have had to adjust on short notice like their counterparts in all materials. Bill Rooney, vice president of strategic development at global transport firm Kuehne+Nagel, acknowledges the frustration that recyclers, brokers, consumers, and governments have with ocean shipping companies. “The knives are out,” he jokes.

Unfortunately, he forecasts backlogs will continue into 2023, with everything from labor shortages to Russia’s war with Ukraine feeding supply chain insecurity. Government intervention in the detention and demurrage fees shippers charge may offer the supply chain some relief, Rooney says.

Speaking for Union Pacific Railroad, Doug Craven, assistant vice president–industrial, says his company is responding to customers by better integrating its work with ports to move cargoes over land and investing in 6,000 new chassis to fit individual sized containers. “We are definitely open for business,” he says. His advice to frustrated customers? “Know what you plan to do [in advance]. Make sure to resist the tendency to overship,” he says.

A range of voices agree the plastics industry needs more open discussion about the possibilities and limits of policy, technology, infrastructure, and more. “As we look to a lower-carbon future, plastics are going to play a really key role,” says Craig Cookson, senior director of plastics sustainability at the American Chemistry Council. “We just must do a better job of recovering and recycling those plastics we have to use. I feel like we are at an inflection point, with all the great things going on.”

Photos courtesy of Dan Hockensmith. Featured image caption: Discussing sustainability: Craig Cookson of the American Chemistry Council; Mars Inc.’s Rachel Goldstein; Kaitlyn Trent of Greenpeace; and Shane Trimmer from the office of Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif. Body image caption: Stephanie Baker of KW Plastics, Kuehne+Nagel’s Bill Rooney, and Doug Craven of Union Pacific Railroad answer audience questions at the Plastics Recycling Conference.


Dan Hockensmith

Dan Hockensmith

I'm a native Ohioan who since 2014 has called Maryland home. My background includes print, broadcast, and digital journalism; government contracting; and marketing communications.