Recycling and packaging campaigns come in a recurring cycle of waves that approach and recede, but rarely quite reach the shore. It’s time to change the cycle.
Plastic waste is usually the trigger that sets loose each new wave. Everyone sees plastic bags, juice packs and bottles strewn over the environment — spanning both land and sea. Moms worry intensely about chemicals in plastic packaging leaching into to their family’s food. Thus, almost every two to four years, public attention and controversy surrounding plastic packaging bubbles up and ultimately boils over, resulting in a new wave of legislative and voluntary initiatives targeting resource recovery and reuse. Each wave of legislation, typically proposed by NGOs and government stakeholders, generates a counter-wave of industry-led voluntary initiatives.
The plastics industry almost takes it for granted that it will face a virtually unending stream of legislative challenges at the local and state level, approaching and receding every year or two. Bans, restrictions, mandates and fees will be aimed at an array of resins and products. Each time, industry sectors turn back the onslaught with a new voluntary initiative to undercut the wave, plus compromises on the scattered new laws that land on shore.
The net result: one or two new voluntary initiatives — short-lived pilot projects to educate a new generation of advocates and lobbyists in the lessons learned in the last cycle — plus a scattering of minor new rules and regulations.
In the latest go-around, industry has been leading voluntary efforts like the Closed Loop Fund and AMERIPEN. Meanwhile, NGOs like Upstream and Californians Against Waste have tried to advance policy at the state level around producer responsibility and product bans. Recycling rates remain stagnant, and stakeholders across communities remain frustrated.
But a new stakeholder coalition has emerged that will potentially break up this cycle: new campaigners. Not just the long-time recycling campaigners, but oceans, toxics and climate advocates. They are charting the impacts of post-consumer waste and are looking for solutions, both nationally and globally.
Right now, stakeholders tell me they face two clear messages from industry — the same messages that recycling advocates have heard for decades:
First: NO to Policy. No bans, no extended producer responsibility, no bottle bills, no landfill bans. And we will fight you at the state level, and undermine your funding, if you seek to propose them.
Second: YES to Voluntary. But don’t ask us about free riders and issues of scale.
As the above message is perpetuated across industry, market demand for plastic packaging is on the rise. As this demand is met, with little means to collect it after consumption, it isn’t surprising that millions of tons of plastic are entering our oceans each year. NGOs are understandably skeptical that voluntary approaches will substantially move the needle to stop this tsunami of trash. This leaves an easy opening for them, as well as other stakeholders who have faced difficulties engaging industry, to advance an anti-plastics narrative.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The plastics industry can avoid most of the product-by-product campaigns by moving just one step further ahead and taking ownership of the issue.
While they may be skeptical, industry would be well served to understand the stakeholders more fully. For the most part, these activists aren’t intrinsically anti-plastic or anti-packaging. They are interested in protecting ecosystems, both ecological and economic. Approach them with systemic solutions, and 80 percent of the activists can work with you, not against you.
If companies are wary of new, command-and-control costs stemming from government policies or campaigns attaching their packaging to ocean pollution, then the status quo message is a good one. Short-term heel dragging will lead to a politically entrenched stakeholder dynamic in the long-term, deepening stakeholder silos and mistrust. We have found that this strategy only leads to drawn out and often costly fights, distracting all communities from the real problem.
The opportunity to work collaboratively with NGOs and government is still on the table, should industry decide to pivot their current approach. It is in industry’s best interest to seize the moment to build across the aisle and help solve the problem, not just identify it. We need industry leaders that will have the intellectual honesty to be proactive. We also need NGOs to be open to working with industry, if they show a real serious commitment to engage.
Industry would do best to come back with simple, market-based approaches to these problems. Work with NGOs to set the targets, and let industry leverage its technology, expertise and supply chains to create solutions that can develop closed loop systems. This must start with the acknowledgement that producers bear some financial burden, which consumers too will bear, and that we must move beyond ineffective voluntary solutions. We may or may not need laws, but to avoid onerous mandates, a system that rewards problem-solvers is essential. Although this may seem difficult to swallow now, it is reality, and a much more prudent strategy long-term.
It’s also the right thing to do for both people and planet, and when all else fails, that’s worth trying.
Danna Pfahl is vice president of Stakeholder Engagement at Future 500.