Plastic in the oceans makes it an urgent issue, especially for single-use plastics. So while speakers ran through many of the benefits of plastics, the issue of how to work on fixing the trash problem was at the top of minds at the annual conference sponsored by the Society of Plastics Engineers' blow molding division, held Sept. 16-18 in Atlanta.
"Frankly, I think we're at a time when these issues are much more serious than they've ever been in terms of plastic waste in the environment," said Ben Jordan, senior director of environmental policy, at Coca-Cola Co., responding to an audience question after his presentation. "Companies are more committed than they've ever been to solve the issues."
"Where I think in the past we might have been for or against a policy out of principle, we have been driven and motivated by the goals and the problems and the need for solutions where we are now. And so I think that we're at a unique time for there to be some movement," Jordan said.
The keynote speaker, Keith Christman, managing director for plastics markets at the American Chemistry Council in Washington, kicked off the conference by citing a life cycle analysis and a study by London-based TruCost that showed the environmental impact of plastics is much lower than other materials like glass, tin or aluminum. Those heavier materials also consume more energy in transportation. And, he said, although steel cans are recycled at an 80 percent rate in the United States, the steel has to be heated at very high temperatures to turn it back into new cans — generating much higher greenhouse gas than does plastics recycling.
Reducing food waste is another benefit of plastics packaging.
But then Christman slapped up a photo of a beach inundated with plastic litter. That's the message getting out, he said.
"Our view is that plastics and other litter in the environment is unacceptable. At the same time, plastics deliver very important environmental benefits to society. So we need to solve the problem of marine litter, and plastic makers have a very important role to play in helping to provide solutions to that," Christman said.
He cited the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, an industry effort launched earlier this year to raise $1.5 billion to help find some solutions, and other programs like Operation Clean Sweep.
The ACC plastics division's goal is that by 2040, 100 percent of plastics packaging is reused, recycled or recovered through chemical recycling. Christman added that today only about half of Americans have convenient access to recycling, so infrastructure improvements are important.
Issues, opportunities with PET
PET is the most recycled plastic, at a rate of about 30 percent, and the National Association for PET Container Resources recently warned that America does not have enough recycled PET supply, or processing capacity, to satisfy commitments of brand owners to use recycled content back into their bottles. Making that even harder, about half of that recycled PET goes into nonbottle applications, like carpeting and textiles, NAPCOR reported.
At the blow molding conference, packaging consultant Scott Steele said there is not enough recycled PET to meet all the promises, and that as a result, pricing for recycled PET will jump.
Atlanta is home to Coca-Cola, which uses billions of PET bottles a year. Coke's goal is that by 2030 its bottles will contain an average recycled content of 50 percent and the equivalent of 100 percent of its packaging will be recycled.
The goals are part of Coke's World Without Waste program.
Right now, all types of Coke packaging is being collected and recycled at a rate of 56 percent globally, Jordan said.
"That means 56 percent comes back either to be refilled or collected for recycling," he said.
Worldwide, about 15 percent of Coke packaging is refillable — split 50-50 between refillable glass and plastic.
For PET bottles, the global recycling rate is about 50 percent, he said.
Jordan said PET will continue to be a major Coke packaging material.
"There's a fine line sometimes out there in the public debate about ending plastic waste vs. ending plastic. There are plenty of people out there in the world who would like to see plastic go away. We know that's not going to happen," he said. "We know there are all sorts of benefits to plastic. We're all going to be using plastic for years and years, right? But ending plastic waste, that is something absolutely that has to happen."
Plastics have to be kept out of the environment, Jordan said. PET is a high-value material, which gives an incentive to be collected.
Coke has formed cross-functional teams from its employees, and those of its bottlers, around the world to coordinate World Without Waste. "This is our approach to the circular economy," Jordan said. "How do we drive the circular economy for our packaging? Not just PET plastic, but our full portfolio. Everything, how can we improve?"
After studying global recycling methods, Coke officials picked five different "archetypes," ranging from a mandated bottle deposit system overseen by the government, like in Michigan and other U.S. states, an industry-run program and other types, down to scavenging for PET and aluminum in developing countries. The result, Jordan said, is that the company has become somewhat "agnostic" on recycling, trying to find out and support the right solution for each country and region.
Given the environmental problem, Coke officials are more open to all solutions, he said.
"We started backing off a little bit on sort of any global position on any kind of anti-deposit," Jordan said. "So we've sort of gone neutral on a global standpoint on deposit systems. Different things work in different places."
For example, he said the company does not mind bottle deposits in Western Europe because industry is allowed to run the system.
But Jordan said Coke continues to oppose deposits in the United States, where they are government controlled. One big reason: The government takes money from unredeemed deposits and can put it in a general fund for other uses, not back into the collection system.
After his presentation, an audience member asked Jordan why Coke is against U.S. bottle bills even though they increase PET for recycling.
"I will say, I don't think it's completely fair to look at the 10 states that have [bottle laws] in the U.S. and the 40 that don't as, those are the two models that can work in the U.S. I personally think there are some in between that we can work on," Jordan said.
Two other speakers at the Atlanta blow molding conference said mandatory bottle deposits could hurt the economics of local municipal curbside recycling programs.
"Sometimes when we have bottle bills, we're taking away our revenue stream from curbside," said Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of sales at Envision Plastics, a recycler in Reidsville, N.C.
The American Chemistry Council does not have a position on deposit laws, Christman said, because the organization has no members that make PET resin.
"At the same time, bottle deposits have two sides to them. PET, for a materials recovery facility is actually a pretty valuable material. Same with aluminum cans. So there is a little bit of a downside to deposit laws. It yanks that valuable material out of the curbside bin," Christman said.
"And if you pull out the aluminum, pull out the PET, then you have to take that recycling system and run it over materials than now have less value. So there is that challenge for all the other materials out there," he said. "It clearly does dramatically increase the recycling rates for the materials that are covered in the deposit programs. But it's a big decision many communities around the country need to make for themselves about whether deposits would help or hurt their system."
Jordan, the Coke environmental policy director, said consumer product makers are facing the same issues. Coke is even talking to archrival PepsiCo Inc.
"All big brands have similar targets to ours. And we're talking to each other more than we ever have. I've been at Coke 23 years ,and I've spent more time with Pepsi over the last two years than I did the 20 years before it," he said. "We really are trying to align together on these issues."
Coke and Pepsi share something else: In July, both companies dropped out of the Plastics Industry Association under pressure from Greenpeace and other environmental groups that want industry groups to end plastics industry lobbying campaigns that push for state laws to limit local restrictions on plastic and other kinds of packaging. That was followed by SC Johnson leaving the plastics trade association in September.