By Pranali Aher, Innovation Marketing and Social Media Intern
In April 2020, Dr. Jamie Pero Parker represented RTI Innovation Advisors at the Association of Plastics Recyclers’ Plastics Recycling Conference. Dr. Parker works extensively in sustainability and the plastics recycling space. She co-led an effort to help use RTI International’s (RTI) Innovation Ecosystems methodology to build a plastic recycling industry cluster in the Ohio River Valley. In addition, she helps our corporate clients identify technologies to recover and/or recycle plastics including multilayers and films
We sat down with Dr. Parker to ask her about the Plastics Recycling Conference and the changes she’s seeing in the industry.
Q: Tell us about the Association of Plastics Recyclers’ (APR) Plastics Recycling Conference, and why you attended?
APR is one of the leading organizations looking at plastics recycling, particularly in the United States. APR is very active and has guidelines that help organizations design for recyclability to name just one effort.
In 2020, we attended the conference. At that time, we were impressed with the insights that were shared. I knew the information available this year would be equally meaningful. In fact, the information was even better this year. I was also pleased to see an increase in brands that attended. This signals to me that more companies see the importance of plastics recycling as part of their sustainability efforts.
Q: Why are these insights so valuable?
The insights are important because this space is becoming much more political. In the US, state and federal governments are starting to take up the issue of plastics recycling. For example, several bills are under consideration in the US at both the state and federal levels. If passed, these bills will affect the number of companies trying to create alternative packaging formats or designs for circular life cycles. You know the issue is big when John Oliver addresses plastics pollution and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) on his show.
Q: What surprised you the most about the Conference?
I was pleased by the number of food companies and brands that attended this year compared to last year. Attendance has really picked up as more consumers are seeing these issues as critical. And I was pleasantly surprised at how effective the virtual format was. It was so much easier to attend and participate — without the stress of travel.
Q: Who were some of the most interesting people/organizations you spoke to during the conference?
It was most interesting to speak with the groups from different levels of government. There were many more people from government organizations this year. I believe this is because of the change in the political landscape since the beginning of 2021. We have several state legislatures considering implementing EPR.
At the conference, we also had an on-demand interview with United States Representative Haley Stevens (D) from Michigan. You may remember that in 2020, she and Anthony Gonzalez (OH-16) introduced bipartisan legislation to reduce plastic waste and improve the global competitiveness of the United States plastics recycling industry. She announced at the Conference that she will be reintroducing the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act, a bill that seeks to increase government support and coordination around plastics recycling technologies and infrastructure.
Q: What’s an important takeaway?
The big takeaway is that plastics recycling legislation is coming. These bills are important. Here’s why. There are companies in the United States that aren’t operating in Europe. These companies haven’t had to commit to changes in packaging — the rules are much more stringent in Europe. For example, when there is an extended producer responsibility (EPR) system in place even at the state level, companies pay fees if they don’t address and design for more sustainable packaging and products. We are seeing a strong legislative push. Look at Virginia where there’s a bill that seeks to classify advanced recycling as a manufacturing process. This bill is going to the governor’s desk.
Several states are putting single-use expanded polystyrene bans in place. Maryland has passed a ban, Virginia is considering it, and Colorado is debating it on the floor. This is interesting. In addition to this legislation, How2Recycle has put polystyrene under review as to whether it can be considered recyclable. Nationally, there is the Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act, seeking to legislate plastic pollution. The bill contains many important parts. There are three parts I find most interesting. First, the bill would establish a national EPR system. Second, as the bill currently reads it will place a 3-year halt on permitting of covered facilities. Right now “covered facilities” includes advanced recycling. And finally, the bill seeks to define advanced recycling as not “true” recycling.
It was also interesting to talk to some of the brands that were there. That’s because plastics recycling is not a one-size-fits-all challenge. Organizations are thinking about recycling and sustainable packaging. Their issues are unique and based on their space in the value chain and the products they are producing.
Q: What trends were prevalent this year that you didn’t see or hear about last year? What are some practical applications you foresee?
I noticed several trends. The politicization of the topic is much more prevalent than last year. Pyrolysis and thermal type processes have often been considered advanced recycling technology. Yet, there is a push to classify these as recovery. Recycling is generally plastic returning to plastic form. Recovery is plastic turned into energy or fuel –you’re recovering the material but cannot create a circular pathway.
As far as practical applications, the threat of regulation is pushing more people to act. There is a shortage in feedstock — recycled plastic available to companies that want to source it. An EPR system is going to exacerbate this because more companies will then compete for the limited recycled resin.
Q: What is the biggest challenge in plastics recycling innovation right now?
A lot of the technologies are at a low technical readiness level; it is still a race and you are placing a bet on those you think are the most viable. A couple of high-profile technologies have filed for bankruptcy or the companies that supported them have backed out. This indicates the importance of the models that we at RTI developed. These models can help to predict recycled feedstock availability. They are more accurate because they incorporate the traditional technical readiness level and the business readiness level.
Additionally, there is a waste balancing act. Take the food industry as an example. For so long we’ve tried to reduce food waste by preserving food and plastics. Now, organizations are asking: should we shift our focus to reducing plastics waste? The caveat is that our food waste may increase. At the same time, the choice doesn’t have to be between reducing food waste or reducing plastics waste.
Q: What was the most important or powerful learning from the conference?
Change is coming and companies are reacting to this.
I look back at the many sustainability projects I’ve worked on as an innovation advisor. Often, I would complete a project for a client, and the project wouldn’t go anywhere. Our group would identify technologies to improve their specific sustainability efforts. And these technologies would sit because there was no perceived ROI. It felt more like an exercise in education rather than action. This is no longer true.
Today, I see a change. Our group is no longer simply providing research for clients who have questions about sustainability and recycling. We are watching clients take the insights we uncover and act on these insights. In some cases, clients are going further than we recommended. It has been very fulfilling to see this happen. Each year I see our group and our clients thinking more and more about people, planet, and profit. We’re seeing that play out in organizations’ sustainability efforts.
Q: What would you recommend to organizations looking to improve in plastics recycling and sustainability?
Plastics recycling and sustainability are challenging, we can help with it.