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Experts discuss the trade-offs of recycled content mandates

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A recent webinar brought together experts to cover the benefits and complications of recycled content mandates.| Monticello/Shutterstock

Recycled content laws are a tool to drive demand for post-consumer resin. But what if producers receive too many releases, raw materials are scarce, or warrants actually cause greater environmental damage?

These concerns were raised by three recycling industry experts during a Jan. 6 webinar focused on recycled content mandates, which are laws and regulations requiring packaging manufacturers and others to use a minimum amount of recycled materials in their products.

Recycled content requirements were the focus of bills enacted in California and Washington State. Now New Jersey spent aggressive minimum recycled content legislation. They have also been proposed at the federal level.

Mark Murray of Californians Against Waste, Steve Alexander of the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and David Allaway of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality presented at the webinar, hosted by the Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) , the North East waste managers. ‘ Association (NEWMOA) and the West Coast Climate and Materials Management Forum.

The webinar drew 622 viewers, according to NERC.

Past experience in California

Mark Murray, executive director of the advocacy group Californians Against Waste (CAW), explained how failed past policies can help inform the new legislative push for recycled content mandates.

He highlighted the three decades of the Golden State rigid plastic packaging container law, which exempts certain key categories, including containers for foodstuffs, drugs, cosmetics, infant formula and medical devices. The policy gives manufacturers too much compliance options, he said, and “at this stage does not contribute in any way to the development of the recycling market, the financing of recycling and producer responsibility”.

For example, depending on the specifics of the policy, instead of incorporating 25% recycled content into containers, manufacturers can reduce container weight by 10%, concentrate the product by 10%, or show that the container is 10% lighter than comparable competitors. some products.

Marc Murray

Marc Murray

“Most people talk about their source reduction and we’re done,” he said.

Adding to the problem, Murray said, is that sufficient funds for the app have not been provided.

California’s other recycled content laws requiring recycled plastic to be used in trash bags and recycled glass to be used in glass bottles and fiberglass insulation also fail to increase the value of the materials. recycled, he said. The minimums were set at what was reasonable to achieve, but the levels did not move the market or increase the value of recycled materials, Murray pointed out.

In the case of glass products, state law requires that bottles contain at least 35% recycled content and that insulation use at least 30% recycled content. According to the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) 2020 Glass Report, bottle producers averaged 42.6% and insulation producers 47.7%.

Year after year, reports show that producers meet the requirements, Murray said, but less recycled glass is used than is collected and the program does not drive up cullet prices. Curbside recycling programs still have to pay to send glass from material recovery facilities to an intermediate processor who will sort and clean the material, he said.

“In addition to the attractive reports we receive every year, [the requirements are] doing nothing to improve the recycled glass market,” he said.

That being said, he is optimistic about the latest recycled content requirements passed in California. Assembly Bill 793 makes brands solely responsible for achieving 50% post-consumer resin (PCR) in beverage containers by 2030. Producers will pay a penalty of 20 cents for every pound below target.

“The idea behind this is more than just creating markets for recycled materials,” he said. “Ultimately it’s about making manufacturers partners to make sure they have enough hardware to meet that requirement.”

Murray added that increasing public and policymaker support for product bans is putting beverage brands on the hot seat: “My message to the beverage industry is, ‘I think you’re in a time of recycling or death.'”

Mandates can lead to negative environmental outcomes

David Allaway, senior policy analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), offered a different approach to recycled content mandates, saying they’re not always the right tool for the job.

They don’t necessarily support local sourcing of recycled materials, he said. For example, if Vermont imposed a recycled content requirement on glass wine bottles, then it could spur glass recycling efforts on the West Coast, where bottles are made and filled, but not locally.

David Allaway

David Allaway

Another concern is that warrants simply “cannibalize” existing markets by using recycled materials. DEQ has studied several ways of managing recycled glass cullet: landfill, bottles, fiberglass, aggregate and pozzolan, which is a fine material used in concrete. The recycling industry has a strong penchant for closed-loop recycling, he noted, or recycling cullet into bottles.

But in terms of contributing to global warming, grinding glass into a fine powder such as using it as a pozzolan has, by far, the least impact, according to his presentation. Using cullet in bottles and fiberglass displaces silica, but pozzolana reduces cement production, which produces significant greenhouse gas emissions, he said. Additionally, no heating is required to melt the cullet when used in pozzolana.

Still, if policymakers mandate recycled content in glass bottles, it could hamper the growth of the nascent pozzolan industry.

“Mandatize [post-consumer] the contents of the glass bottles could actually have a perverse outcome,” Allaway said.

The same could be true for plastics, he said. For example, recycling HDPE packaging into packaging or pipe offsets the need for virgin HDPE in both cases. But more costs and environmental impacts are incurred when processing waste for use in packaging, according to his presentation.

He cited a 2015 study from the Journal of Industrial Ecology, “Common misconceptions about recyclingthat the preference for ‘closed loop’ recycling over ‘open loop’ recycling should be abandoned in favor of choosing the end use that has the highest potential for displacement of virgin resources.

Allaway also noted that using PCR doesn’t always mean offsetting an equivalent amount of virgin resin. Due to differences in technical qualities, some products may require the use of more plastic if it is PRC rather than virgin plastic. In these cases, the greater amount of material erodes the environmental benefits of using recycled resin.

It is crucial to focus on supply

Steve Alexander, President and CEO of APR, noted that his group was the first industry association to support recycled content legislation, back in 2006. From this year, however, he sees APR putting more focus on supply.

“We need to make sure we collect enough material to meet those mandates,” he said. (APR is the owner of Resource Recycling, Inc., publisher of Plastics Recycling Update.)

Steve Alexander

Steve Alexander

To enable circularity, the first thing that needs to happen is that a product or container should be designed to be recycled, he said, noting APR’s Design Guide is the most-referenced authority. in the world for companies looking to develop recyclable products.

Also, more material needs to be captured. Alexander cited data showing that, in robust recycling programs, households consume an average of 77 pounds of PET per year, but less than a third of that enters the recycling stream. Consumer confusion, due to poor product labeling and inconsistent lists of “acceptable recyclables,” contributes to this gap.

“We do a terrific job — all of us — to confuse the consumer,” he said.

The APR worked with the Federal Trade Commission to help inform its update of the Green Guides, which cover marketing claims related to environmental sustainability on products, including recyclability, and were last updated in 2012. The guides could be updated to eliminate confusion in the market, said Alexander, but APR fears they will end up lacking in specificity.

In terms of demand, APR has launched a PCR certification program to assure brand owners that the PCR they purchase is, in fact, post-consumer material and not post-industrial, he said. APR has also worked hard to support the expanded uses of PCR beyond the original products. For example, Waste Management began purchasing curb carts made with 10% recycled content, creating huge market demand for recycled polyethylene.

Crates, dividers and pallets are other products made from recycled plastic, he noted. One manufacturing plant alone created a demand for 2.5 million pounds of recycled plastic a year when it switched from wooden pallets to plastic pallets, he said.

A version of this story appeared in Plastics Recycling Update on January 12.

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