A City of Philadelphia collection worker uses a RecycleBank truck.

American Chemistry Council focuses on plastic recycling

Improving the recycling rate for plastics, both residential and non-residential, is taking on new import with the high price of energy.

The United States consumes a substantial amount of plastic annually through various products (domestic and imported) and enhancing the collection infrastructure to meet industry, environment and energy concerns is gaining wider support and acceptance. Steven Russell, the managing director of the Plastics Division for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), in the following interview, discusses recent initiatives and strategies to support recycling efforts.

Question: Do enough Americans realize the value of plastic and are they doing enough to ensure that is it recycled?

Answer: Plastics are a resource that is too valuable to waste – certainly too valuable to end up as litter. Therefore, we believe it’s important to work together to increase opportunities to allow the public to recycle more plastics.

Our opinion research told us that Californians, in particular, want more options that enable them to recycle when away from home. We did some creative thinking and came up with some novel approaches to partner with the California Department of Parks & Recreation (State Parks) and Keep California Beautiful (KCB) to roll out a new campaign on State Park sites in the San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles coastal areas that began in November.

The campaign also will help promote two key goals of America Recycles Day, which include encouraging people to recycle more and to support recycling events in their communities.

The campaign recycling bins and/or educational displays that will be found on beaches will be marked with messages reminding Californians that “Plastics are too Valuable to Waste – Recycle.” Significant campaign funding through 2008 is coming from the ACC.

Question: Should government and various industry groups unite to develop a plastic recycling program similar to recycling programs that were in effect during the Second World War?

Answer: There are not enough opportunities right now for Americans to recycle, so ACC’s program in California is a start. It will help us to find out what kind of programs would work and to see where we might create additional innovative partnerships with governments and government agencies.

We’re looking at California as a first step, but every state and locality is going to have its own unique needs and approaches, and we are not going to presume a one-size-fits-all approach will fit everywhere.

Question: Would an at-purchase recycling fee for products with plastic packaging, be it federal or state initiated, help to create an infrastructure to enhance recycling opportunities?

Answer: The best way to start to increase the infrastructure would be to explore simpler, less resource-intensive schemes. We hope to take a more direct approach by increasing public awareness. We believe that with public awareness comes capacity, and with capacity, the market would be able to step in and right itself.

Question: Have there been any attempts to organize national conferences or ongoing discussions to develop a unified policy to promote the recycling of plastic?

Answer: I’m not aware of any conferences, but we’re certainly in favor of increasing recycling at a national level. However, the evidence does not seem to suggest that a single national approach would work. You would need to have MRFs, a transportation infrastructure and a customer base. There are all sorts of local waste laws and waste stream and recycling programs that differ from community to community.

Question: How would you describe the role of legislation to promote recycling?

Answer: There is a place for legislation, but we are more interested in finding unique approaches in particular areas where there is a need. We identified a need in California and looked at some creative public-private partnerships to meet that need.

Question: How important are education programs for adults and children to promote plastic recycling?

Answer: Public education is a critical component of ACC’s plastics initiative. As we expand the campaign in 2008, we are looking at opportunities to reach out to school children. We’ve learned from our focus groups that quite often household recycling is inspired by children who learn about it in school. In essence, it is reverse learning and it very effective.

It should be noted that in 2006, Californians recycled more than 12 billion beverage containers – an increase of 814 million containers compared to 2005. California still leads the nation in total quantity of bottles and cans recycled.

Question: What do you make of the growing movement by communities to enact bans on plastic shopping bags and concern about the environmental impact of plastic bags?

Answer: We understand the concerns, and we are working and developing programs to increase the recycling of plastic bags, and to make sure the public understands that plastic bags are an environmentally-responsible choice. California has a new law that requires large grocers and retailers to offer in-store drop-off collection of bags and we strongly support that legislation. ACC is working with individual grocers and retailers to promote the recycling of bags. We have a great resource, www.plasticbagrecycling.org, that helps provide technical assistance to commercial parties.

Question: What steps are being taken to reduce the amount and weight of plastic packaging?

Answer: That is mainly the result of this industry’s propensity for innovation. For instance, both the two-liter plastic water bottle and the one-gallon milk jug now weigh 33 percent less than they did in the 1970s. This reflects the spirit of innovation that has characterized our industry and it also makes good business sense.

Question: Is there a long-term attainable goal for the collection of plastic via recycling?

Answer: There is. With plastic bottles, for example, there exists a highly developed infrastructure for recycling, which enables us to track the quantities collected each year. In 2005, the latest year for which tracking data are available, collection reached an all-time high of 2.1 billion pounds, while the recycling rate grew to nearly 25 percent. We are not where we want to be and there is room for improvement, but we do have a good story to tell and we are working to do more.