The “root cause” solution to plastic pollution is in making sure plastics work in today’s managed-waste systems. It seems too simplistic an answer considering the enormity of this problem. But when it’s all said and done, plastics (petroleum or plant based) must work in our managed systems, especially the one that primarily collects plastic waste – period. This is the only path to a full life-cycle and systems approach for profoundly better economic and environmental outcomes.
Plastics are created from energy and, through our managed systems, plastics should ultimately be recovered as clean energy, closing the loop and ensuring plastics never become “waste”. Energy growth is directly linked to well-being and prosperity across the globe. For developing nations, this need is fundamental to improving and even saving lives. Energy is the building block for creating plastics and ensuring Energy’s recovery at the end-of-life is essential in eliminating pollution and achieving Circularity.
Which brings me to the New Plastics Economy’s “Global Commitment” pledge which states, “The Foundation believes the use of anaerobic digestion is currently limited for plastic packaging as at the date of publication,” to justify the focus on Compostability as the only acceptable end-of-life solution, but only for “specific” and “targeted” applications. Otherwise, it’s Recycle or die! The myopic pledge even doubled-down declaring that plastics-to-energy is not part of the circular economy target state! A stance that is radically shortsighted and naïve considering the scope of this crisis and the current state of Recycling.
But what strikes me as incredibly odd is that out of the dozens of experts, the broad stakeholder review process involving 100 organizations and experts across businesses, governments, NGO’s, academics and standard-setting organizations, you’re telling me that nobody noticed that this statement is completely ass-backwards?!?
The vast majority of plastic packaging is commonly and customarily discarded in facilities that are large-scale Anaerobic digestors (a.k.a. modern landfills) Limited? Not true, nearly 90% of U.S. Municipal Solid Waste (especially plastic packaging, because that’s what it is – not organic waste) is sent to anaerobic waste systems (practice and scale) – BTW, 0% to Industrial Composting facilities! These anaerobically managed MSW facilities are actively collecting and turning waste into fuel for vehicles, heat for homes and providing power to industries. They are highly regulated and strictly managed, and no other waste-management system collects more discarded plastics – none!
We have a pollution crisis and to get any tangible grip on this problem plastics must work in the systems that are available to us today. Strategies and pledges based on contingencies and “further innovation” only stagnate our abilities to act now. Recycling will never be a solution to pollution. We have systems in place and technologies available to make meaningful strides today, based on data, science and certainty that eliminate pollution with return value, not just continuing to “fight against” it with sentiment and no substance.
Energy recovery must be included in strategy and design, it is the alpha and omega. From where it comes, it must return. Negating this principle in the management of plastics is blasphemous to the fundamental principles of “Circularity” and only serves to continue down a linear path that solves nothing.