Plastic pollution is a major issue but recycling and recyclers play a crucial role in reversing this negative trend and ultimately promoting a healthy earth.

“A world without recycling would be wasted resources,” says William Robberson, co-founder, president, and CTO of Kamilo, Inc., during the Spotlight on Plastics: Recycled Content, EPR, and Market Conditions session during ISRI2022 on Tuesday, March 22.

Robberson, a licensed professional engineer (P.E.) and nationally recognized expert in plastics pollution research, prevention, response, described the damage done by plastic pollution to the oceans and the natural world as both a “tragedy and an emergency,” but it’s something that recycling helps mitigate. Along with helping divert materials from ending up places where they shouldn’t and providing net environmental benefits, transparent recycling helps build trust with the public and helps change the narrative that recycling is broken. Robberson says that the recycling process should be tracked from the very beginning when something is first recycled to the very end when it becomes a new product. It’s also important to calculate the benefits that come from this full circle process, he says.

So, what, if anything, is stopping plastics from being properly recycled? According to Resa Dimino, managing principal, RRS & Signalfire Group, the issue isn’t capacity, as the recycling capacity actually exceeds the available supply of plastic. The issue also isn’t demand, as most people are aware of the U.S. Plastics Pact that has set very ambitious goals for recycled content and increasing recycling rates.

There is currently not enough Post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic produced at the quality required to meet industry demand. Achieving corporate and government targets for PCR will require increased supply of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), and Polypropylene (PP), as well as growth in food grade reclamation capacity.

“If you take a look at how much demand would be created if we were to meet the goals of the U.S. Plastics Pact, we can see that we’re not even close to generating the supply of recycled plastic to meet that demand,” Dimino says. “We have a long way to go. We have a supply problem.”

Policy is needed to drive supply, Dimino continues. Fortunately, stakeholder interests are driving policy activity. There’s broad industry support for minimum recycled content and labeling measures. Several groups including Ameripen, the American Beverage Association (ABA), Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), The Recycling Partnership (TRP), and the Consumer Brands Association (CBA) recognize additional funding and policy support is necessary to facilitate “recyclability” claims and build supply of recycled content.

As a result, there has been significant policy activity to strengthen recycling in the U.S. As ISRI’s chief lobbyist Billy Johnson says, the public sentiment towards plastics, especially in the ocean, has led to a “revolution in awareness of the problems with plastics.”

“Plastics have been around for a long time. They’ve been in the ocean for a long time. But now a lot of people are realizing it and are aware of it. And they want something to happen,” Johnson says. “The public has woken up. They want action and they want action now.”

Photo caption: William Robberson, co-founder, president, and chief technology officer Kamilo Inc. addresses the audience during the Spotlight on Plastics during ISRI2022. Photo courtesy of ISRI.