Plastic has long plagued consumer goods. Now, industry players and materials manufacturers are coming together to target and slash plastic inputs deemed “problematic and unnecessary” while a new platform aims to turn plastic waste into a globally traded commodity.
U.S. Plastics Pact
The U.S. Plastics Pact—launched in 2020 as a joint partnership between the Recycling Partnership and World Wildlife Fund—has been working to connect organizations across the globe to promote scalable, circular solutions for plastic waste. On Tuesday, it released its first Problematic and Unnecessary Materials list, identifying 11 plastic packaging items used by U.S. companies that have no current pathway for reuse, recycling or composting.
U.S. Pact members or “activators,” including over 100 businesses, non-profits and government organizations, developed the list, and are now tasked with identifying and developing guidance for circular alternatives that can be put into use by 2025. These activators, which include American consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies, retailers and groups like Amazon, DuPont, eBay, Starbucks, Isko and the Fashion Institute of Technology, among others, are themselves responsible for 33 percent of the plastic packaging used in the U.S.
Tuesday’s consensus list includes intentionally added Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (often used for water resistance), non-detectable pigments like Carbon Black, opaque or pigmented PET bottles in any color other than transparent blue or green, oxo-degradable and biodegradable additives which quickly break down into microplastics, Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PETG) resin coating, label constructions with adhesives, inks and materials that render them non-recyclable, Polystyrene (often used to make styrofoam), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), and stirrers, straws and cutlery that are non-recyclable or non-compostable.
The U.S. Pact said these offending materials and products apply to consumer goods packaging and not to medical plastics used in clinical settings or laboratories. In addition to being deemed un-recyclable or compostable, materials fall under another subset of criteria. Many contain hazardous chemicals or create hazardous conditions for human health or the environment, hinder the recyclability of other items, can be avoided or replaced with other materials while maintaining package utility, and have a high likelihood of becoming litter. U.S. Pact will continue building the list, in keeping with standards laid out by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Plastics Pact Network.
“We thank our activators for their commitment to working together to deliver on the U.S. Pact’s targets,” Emily Tipaldo, executive director of U.S. Pact, said in a statement. “The elimination of these problematic and unnecessary materials will enable advancements in circular package design, increase opportunities for recovery, and enhance the quality of recycled content available for manufacturers.”
“Recycling will only work if we stop pumping contaminants and un-recyclable materials into the system,” Dr. Anja Malawi Brandon, U.S. Plastics policy analyst at Ocean Conservancy, added. The conservancy’s research shows that the majority of trash found on beaches and in waterways across the globe is effectively un-recyclable. “Phasing out these 11 materials will go a long way in cleaning up the recycling stream and our coastlines,” she said.
Prior to the establishment of the U.S. Pact and its objectives, 66 percent of now-members were already taking steps to eliminate the use of certain materials and components and move toward recyclable packaging. In recent seasons, fashion industry players have adopted circular packaging solutions such as polybags to mailers and boxes as a part of their forward-looking sustainability strategies.
The rising interest in consumer packaging has led to significant business opportunities for innovators—and interest from industry backers. Berkeley-based biomaterials firm Sway, which has created a seaweed-derived alternative to polybags, closed on a $2.5 million seed funding raise led by Starbucks-affiliated Valor Siren Ventures in November. The company’s compostable packaging is designed to disintegrate within weeks under normal backyard conditions.
New Zealand’s Better Packaging Co.—certified by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Plastics Pact Network—crafts non-toxic and compostable packs, bags, bubble wrap, labels, liners and more from cornstarch-derived polylactic acid (PLA) and oil-based polybutyrate adipate terephthalate (PBAT). The material firm’s recently launched Pollastic range upcycles ocean plastics and waste from waterways that has been deemed unrecyclable by other waste-management bodies, turning it into mailers and shopping bags for retail stores.
Rebound Plastic Exchange
Meanwhile, a new platform is banking on the opportunity to convert plastic trash into a valuable commodity.
By the middle of the year, Abu Dhabi-based International Holding Company’s Rebound Ltd plans to launch the Rebound Plastic Exchange, a quality-assured trading platform for buying and selling recycled plastics.
“We’ve developed a global trading solution that offers a large-scale opportunity to reduce some of the world’s plastic pollution via recycling,” Rebound Ltd general manager Maryam Al Mansoori said in a statement. “By capturing the value of plastic feedstock, we allow companies across all sectors, from apparel to automotive, to access recycled content with confidence while creating new opportunities for communities in the value chain to grow their economies.”
The Exchange will introduce new standards, certifications, insurance and quality control guidelines into the recycled plastic supply chain, and drive efficiency by identifying opportunities to recycle plastic at scale. While almost all plastic waste can be recycled, just 15 percent makes its way into a channel for reuse due to market fragmentation a lack of cohesive, centralized standards, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. This makes it difficult for recycling groups to advance their operations, making it harder for brands to source quality recycled plastic at scale.
Global brands are increasingly turning to recycled content as a part of their circularity plans. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated that with many organizations aiming to increase the use of recycled content in their products by 20 percent to 30 percent over the next four years, businesses could face a 6 million ton deficit.
Meanwhile, global governments crafting their own environmental stewardship plans to increase demand for plastic recycling. The EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan proposes mandatory recycled content requirements for plastic products, and lays out recycling rate goals of 50 percent by 2025 and 55 percent by 2030.
Rebound Ltd estimates that the Exchange should trade roughly 5 million tons of recycled plastic by 2025, as it works to create a point of market entry for countries without their own domestic recycling capabilities or uses for recycled plastic.
“This is a breakthrough concept coming from the UAE to the world with significant potential,” Syed Basar Shueb, IHC’s managing director and CEO, said of the project. “The availability of a reliable advanced recycling system will play an essential role in helping address plastic in the environment of many countries around the globe.”
Global logistics company DHL Global Forwarding was announced as a launch partner for the Exchange, and will be tasked with helping Rebound Ltd develop its quality assurance process. DHL will facilitate laboratory testing on each traded plastic product to ensure that it meets accepted international standards before it goes to market, according to Middle East and Africa CEO Amadou Diallo.
“As the global leader in logistics, we look forward to making Rebound Plastic Exchange’s supply chains more sustainable and achieving environmental targets and business ambitions together,” he said.
Calling the Exchange “the needed intervention” to transform the plastic recycling industry, Rebound Ltd’s Douglas Woodring said the platform will help establish long-awaited business standards for an industry on the upswing.
“For the first time, the trade of plastic feedstock will see the same levels of trust and transparency that exist in the market for other commodities,” he said. This will have the effect of “increasing business confidence and encouraging greater trading volume, which will mean a reduction in plastic going to landfills,” he added.