Phasing Out “Problematic” Plastics

12:11 minutes

simple illustration of a coffee stirrer, fork, knife, spoon, and plastic straws
Credit: Shutterstock

Plastic packaging is just about impossible to avoid. Getting takeout? You’ll likely wind up with a plastic container, or cutlery. Grabbing a coffee? Plastic stirrers and straws are hard to evade. These items are tough to recycle, and most sanitation systems aren’t equipped to process them. That means they go into the trash, or worse, waterways. 

Last week, the U.S. Plastics Pact released a much-anticipated list of “Problematic and Unnecessary Materials” that pact members should phase out by 2025. These items include cutlery, straws, and stirrers, as well as materials that include certain chemicals and pigments. The impact could be large: Pact members make up about third of America’s plastic packaging producers. Members include companies that use a lot of packing, like Target, Walmart and Aldi, as well as those that make raw plastic materials.

The goal of the U.S. Plastics Pact is to help make America’s recycling system more circular, where materials in theory could be recycled in perpetuity. But some in the plastics industry say the timeline for phasing out these materials are too fast, or may cause a reliance on more carbon-intensive materials. Joining Ira to break down the potential impact of phasing out these materials is Emily Tipaldo, executive director of the U.S. Plastics Pact, based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

Want to learn more? Read the list of items targeted for a phase-out by 2025 and industry reactions at WasteDive. 

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Segment Guests

Emily Tipaldo

Emily Tipaldo is Executive Director of the U.S. Plastics Pact, in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, diving into the sticky world of surface science. But first, I don’t need to tell you that plastic products are everywhere. It’s hard to go through life without picking up a plastic something, right? Getting takeout– here’s a plastic fork and a knife. Grabbing a coffee– take a little plastic stirrer or a straw with you.

These items are tough to recycle, and most sanitation systems aren’t equipped to process them. That means they go into the trash, or worse, they wind up in waterways. Well, last week the US Plastic Pact released a much-anticipated list of problematic and unnecessary materials which pact members should phase out by 2025. Now, this is a big deal, because the pact’s members make up about a third of America’s plastic packaging producers, companies that use a lot of packaging, like Target, Coca-Cola, and Walmart, as well as companies that make raw plastic materials. Joining me today to talk about which materials will be phased out and the possible impact of this is my guest Emily Tipaldo, executive director of the US Plastics Pact, based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Welcome to Science Friday.

EMILY TIPALDO: Thanks, Ira. I’m so glad to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’re so glad to have you. Thank you. Let’s get right into this. Let’s talk about the materials that will be phased out. I’ve mentioned some that people might be familiar with, like straws and those little coffee stirrers, but what else is on the list of problematic plastics?

EMILY TIPALDO: There are 11 materials on the list that we released. And some, as you just mentioned, are formats, so like cutlery, straws, stirrers. Some are actual plastic resins, or the plastic types that you would think about, so PVC, polystyrene, and PETG. And then some of the items are additives or things that are added to provide some performance enhancement for plastic packaging, like non-detectable pigments, thinking about carbon black or pigmented PET, so again, talking about colorants that are added, or things like oxo-degradable additives, which are added sort of with an eye toward plastics being able to break down. But oftentimes they just break down into smaller plastic pieces, or microplastics.

IRA FLATOW: And what makes these ones that you’ve chosen so problematic?

EMILY TIPALDO: The US Plastics Pact– our primary reason for being is the creation of a circular economy for plastic packaging. So we’re working together as an initiative to build this circular economy. And as part of that, we are constantly asking ourselves, you know, are these things reusable, recyclable, or compostable? And we have very tough definitions for those terms.

So if something that’s used in plastic packaging, or the plastic packaging itself, is not reusable, recyclable, or compostable today, or if there isn’t that trajectory in place for it to become one of those three things in just the next couple of years, by 2025, then we have to ask ourselves, is there really a place for this in the future? And is there the support behind it to bring it into circularity, to make it reusable, recyclable, or compostable? And if the answer is no to those things, then we’re looking at a potential contaminant to the system, something that our system can’t manage and may wind up as litter or in the environment.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I said that the companies that make up the US Plastics Pact make up about a third of plastic packaging producers. And some of these companies are very familiar, like Walmart and Clorox and Nestle. There are also recycling associations and companies that make raw plastic materials, as you say. Does that mean we can expect that those companies will not produce any of these plastics on the problem plastic list by 2025?

EMILY TIPALDO: You’re on the right track. So it means that those companies or organizations who’ve signed on to participating with the US Plastics Pact will work over the next couple of years to eliminate these 11 materials from their supply chain. So if it’s relevant to their business and part of their supply chain, then yes, they are meant to take voluntary action to eliminate these things, hopefully completely doing so by 2025. But that’s what we will be measuring year over year to track that reduction progress.

IRA FLATOW: Now, you said voluntary action. Are these companies going to be held accountable? And how would that work?

EMILY TIPALDO: Yes, they will be held accountable. So one of the key tenets of the US Plastics Pact is that each year, each participant is required to report. So we are reporting progress toward our 2025 targets that we have set for ourselves.

There are four targets. And the very first target is spot-on about our elimination and reduction goals. So we will be measuring year-over-year progress as to how all of the signatories to the US Plastics Pact are taking steps and eliminating these items from their supply chain. And then that will be reported publicly, so we’re able to track and hold folks accountable for how they’re doing in terms of eliminating these items.

IRA FLATOW: Yet about 2/3 of plastic packaging is made by companies that are not in the Plastic Pact. Do you expect that some of these will phase out these problem plastics on their own and join with you someday?

EMILY TIPALDO: That’s a great question. So while we do have sort of limited breadth and depth in terms of the signatories to the US Plastics Pact, you had mentioned earlier some are national or multinational companies with really large footprints, which means they have lots of suppliers and lots of customers, sort of at both ends. And I would highly anticipate sort of the positions and something like the elimination list from the US Plastics Pact to really penetrate those supply chains of the US Plastics Pact signatories. So it will have waves throughout the broader plastic packaging value chain.

IRA FLATOW: Now let’s talk about some of the pushback that you’re getting. I understand that the American Chemistry Council has pushed back, saying that phasing out these materials will lead companies to rely on materials with a higher carbon footprint. More recyclable materials like metal do have a high carbon footprint. What’s your response to that criticism?

EMILY TIPALDO: Oftentimes, the upstream industry will raise the issue of, what happens when you switch to an alternative material and potentially drive up carbon emissions? And while it is valid to consider how carbon emissions or greenhouse gas emissions are impacted by switching materials, there are a number of other factors that you have to consider alongside carbon. We can’t have carbon tunnel vision.

So we need to think about a circular economy because, again, that’s what we are looking to build as the US Plastics Pact. And by building a circular economy, we need to think about keeping materials in the loop. So how are we doing that? How are we being regenerative? How are we also looking at other environmental impacts? So it’s much bigger than just assessing the carbon footprint.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I can see that you walk a tightrope, and you find yourself between a rock and a hard place, because I know that some big players in the plastic industry say that these goals are too aggressive, and some environmentalists say they’re not aggressive enough. How do you walk that line?

EMILY TIPALDO: That’s a great question. We are sort of in a very interesting spot. And I think part of it is, we don’t have time to waste. I think over the last 10 years or so, we have seen a number of multinational and national companies make aggressive sustainability goals, make packaging goals. And the dates by which those things are supposed to happen come and go, and we haven’t seen progress. And it’s really hard to know whether or not they’re delivering.

So in some sense, we have really aggressive goals in order to ignite a fire under companies and really push them to see, what can we do in a really short amount of time, and come to a realization that a lot is within their control. So companies need to look at it from a place of strength, that they have so much power over how their products are delivered to the market. And they have so many decisions that can be made in the right direction to help build a more circular economy for the materials that they are putting out into the market. And we can help find solutions in a pretty competitive way.

So that’s what the pact is about. We know we’re pushing ourselves on a really aggressive timeline. I’m so thankful that we have the transparency and accountability hook of requiring annual reporting so we’re tracking our progress, and we’ll know how we’re doing as a group. And it’s about our measurement, sort of our actions together as a pact. So we won’t be pointing fingers or calling it gotcha on a particular company or an organization publicly, but more so, again, telling that story as a pact. How are we moving together toward these aggressive targets we’ve set for ourselves on a 2025 timeline?

IRA FLATOW: And I guess consumers themselves could become active, and see what companies are in the pact and what companies are not in the pact, and decide where they want to spend their dollars.

EMILY TIPALDO: Yes, exactly. I think if you’re looking to support companies that are taking action and really pushing themselves to be part of something that does require transparency, that is working across all sectors of the value chain, including the public sector and nonprofits and universities, and that the pact is part of a broader global network, which is really exciting because we’re measuring things the same way. We’re gaining insights from other parts of the world, and trying to sort of bring all of the good things that exist and that are growing in terms of materials management and circular economy, and putting them to work again in geographies across the globe.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Emily.

EMILY TIPALDO: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: Emily Tipaldo, executive director of the US Plastics Pact, based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. And if you would like to see who is a member and who is not a member of the US Plastics Pact, you can go to USPlasticsPact.org.

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