Recycling is an outdated solution — it's time for a circular economy
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Plastic in America will continue invading our landfills, floating in our oceans, and contaminating our bodies as long as we are stuck in the 20th-century linear economic mindset of “take-make-waste.”  What the 21st-century needs is an intersectional approach to the plastics crisis. In March, the Break Free from Plastic Act of 2021 (BFFPA) was reintroduced to Congress, targeting the chemicals and plastics industries for their role in pollution and landfilling. The bill argues for increasing recycling rates, shifting financial responsibility for recycling and waste management systems to upstream producers, and bans an expanded list of petroleum-based, single-use plastic products. This is a good starting point, but these are linear solutions that still result in wasted resources and only incremental improvements to the economic models that are fueling the climate crisis. If we are to successfully address climate change, the BFFPA must push for circular economy principles that design out the concepts of waste and pollution entirely and advance regenerative natural systems instead.

The BFFPA proposes to improve recycling rates and impose waste management fees to reduce plastic pollution. These solutions have a number of inherent issues. Currently, a mere 9 percent of plastics are recycled each year. Improving this rate, even doubling or tripling it, won’t tackle an issue of the size we’re facing: over 35 million tons of plastic are produced each year in the U.S., and over 31 million tons are landfilled. The bill also suggests we bolster American recycling by shifting the cost of recycling and downstream waste management programs from taxpayers to polluters via packaging fees. (The American Chemistry Council (ACC) suggested pooling private and taxpayer funding instead.) However, if 91 percent of plastics are landfilled, changing the funding stream isn’t automatically going to ensure plastics actually end up in the recycling system.

Let’s be clear: plastic is toxic, and the chemicals that are used to produce petroleum-based plastics are toxic, too. Plastics break down into microplastics; washing fabrics or products with plastic sheds these microplastics into our landfills and oceans -- we can’t recapture that in recycling systems. Recycling means recirculating inherently toxic materials, giving them another chance to infect our food webs and bodies with potentially poisonous results. Just as critics question carbon sequestration technology as a solution for emissions — when what we need to do is stop emitters from emitting — we must question the chemicals and plastics industries’ focus on recycling. Enforcing the belief that recycling is the only solution will drive plastics production and waste generation (thus increasing greenhouse gas emissions.) Plastic production from petroleum-based virgin resin production is a major contributor of C02, and improving downstream recycling doesn’t clean up carbon-intense upstream production. In addition to upstream emissions, recycling ignores local air and water pollution, directly impacting low-income communities of color, in whose backyards these toxic industries exist.

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The BFFPA needs to go beyond recycling and build the legislative framework for a true circular economy, enabling development of emerging waste-to-biomaterials technology to tackle the conjoined climate crises of plastic and food waste generation. Beyond a packaging fee, these industries need a real incentive to move away from carbon-intensive chemicals and packaging production to safe materials production. Subsidies for these industries need to be cut, taxes on emissions and local pollution instituted, and incentive programs passed to modern, clean industries instead.

An opportunity to build a circular economy exists within the BFFPA. In 2018, the U.S. generated 35.7 million tons of plastic, 12.2 percent of total municipal solid waste generation. That same year, 35.3 million tons of American food waste was landfilled, contributing to methane and carbon emissions. Technology exists that creates compostable biomaterials from food waste; we should be incentivizing these solutions to displace oil-based plastics in our supply chain and reduce organic waste landfilling. The BFFPA’s proposed ban on certain single-use plastic (SUP) products would be better framed as enforcement that SUP products be made of certified degradable biomaterials. In this arena, Polyhydroxalkanoate (PHA), is emerging as both an upstream and downstream solution.

PHA is a compostable, non-toxic biomaterial with higher degradation rates than traditional bioplastics and has broad product development potential, making it a unique and valuable material in the global materials palette. The global PHA market size is estimated to nearly double from 2020 to 2025 to $98.5 million with a CAGR of 11.5 percent, as consumers and corporations demand sustainable plastic alternatives.

A number of emerging biomaterials companies are working towards this shared goal of displacing plastics and reducing pollution. Danimer Scientific, prior to investigation for possible securities laws violations as of March 25, seemed poised to lead the PHA market to commercial scale, noting their PHA was sold out through 2022 and expected to sell out again through 2024 once its greenfield facility was fully operational. Of the North American PHA producers though, only Full Cycle Bioplastics has a patented technology that produces PHA from existing organic waste streams, as compared to Danimer’s canola- and soy-derived PHA, or NewLight Technologies’ and Mango Materials’ methane-derived PHA. By sourcing waste that would otherwise be landfilled, Full Cycle’s waste-to-PHA reduces methane and carbon emissions via landfill avoidance on the front-end, and displaces oil-based plastics on the back-end.

The BFFPA is an opportunity to re-localize production and waste management, circularize the economy, and reimagine technological progress and economic solutions. As the BFFPA enters national debate, legislators and advocates should be clear to adjust definitions of “single use” to avoid bans on compostable or marine safe PHA-based materials while incentivizing the development of PHA production facilities. As the U.S. develops a green recovery plan, these nuances will be critical for the emerging domestic biomaterials industry. Companies in the PHA materials space are developing circular economies of scale that address landfilling, waste generation, and greenhouse gas emissions. By eradicating petroleum-based plastic from our supply chains, our communities, and the environment, the BFFPA can set the U.S. on the right path to a healthier, more sustainable economic recovery.

Delaine Mayer is a member of the New York University SPS Energy, Climate Justice and Sustainability Lab Advisory Board.