When we are looking at any issue, it is incredibly important that we look at both sides of the issue. My last blog covered the background of major legislation being considered such as the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA) and the Recycle Act. It also covered many of the positives of these legislative actions, but I want to cover the negatives that I see these legislative actions bringing forth as well. Finally, I will go over my suggestions on what I think would be the appropriate actions.
Cons of Current Waste Legislation
While these efforts might be well intentioned, that doesn’t mean they are the best changes we can make. For starters, these changes would be very expensive. One of the beautiful things about capitalism is that it drives companies to reduce waste as much as possible. Plastic manufacturers are motivated to reduce any waste throughout their process, as well as reduce the amount of material required to make their products, because it saves them money. This is part of the reason you have likely seen an increase in ultra thin water bottles and a shift to more flexible packaging. These products require less material than the alternatives and perfectly align with reduce, reuse, and recycle.
As I have said in the past, the concept of reduce, reuse, recycle is an order of operations. Reducing your material usage and consumption is the most effective way to have a positive environmental impact. This is something that happens as a direct result of our free market model. When we interfere to try and make packaging that is more “recyclable” it will lead to more robust and thicker materials, which likely means more plastic. On top of this, as an industry, we would be putting the bulk of recycling responsibility still on consumers. Consumers will still need to be the ones that make sure the products they use end up in the recycling bin.
Another direct response of thicker and more robust packaging is higher costs. Packaging makes up a varied amount of the total cost of products. This number can range anywhere from 1 to 40% of the cost, but the average is about 9% of the total cost. That means for every $11 you spend on products, $1 goes directly to packaging.
If we require more compostable and recyclable packaging, there would almost certainly be an increase in packaging costs across the board. In my experience, I would estimate this would lead to about 2X the packaging costs. Producers of packaging materials won’t be able to absorb these costs and they will be passed directly onto consumers. This means that everything you have been buying would increase by close to 9% in cost.
Since the household income of two-thirds of America is less than 100k annually, this would be hugely detrimental to medium and low income families. They won’t be able to afford nearly as much as they can based on the current structure. This will drive more families deeper into poverty by making essential goods more expensive.
On top of all of this, the issues with using thicker materials continue. Switching to either thicker plastic or potentially glass means we will be working with additional weight. Thus, we will be expending additional energy not only to produce these products, but also to transport these goods. Trucks will require additional fuel to carry the extra weight, leading to even higher emissions. What’s more important, the efficiency of how the waste is managed, or all the energy required to produce and transport a good?
Speaking of using alternatives to plastic, would creating a bag tax on plastic really help anything? As I said in the last post, I do believe it is an effective way to drive consumers to use less. If they have to pay for every bag, then it will drive them to use and consume less. However I want to make sure that these bag bills apply to EVERY bag and not just plastic bags. The data tells us that paper bags required 4X the energy to produce as plastic bags so switching from plastic to paper isn’t a genuine solution. If we really want to drive change, these bag bills should apply to all bags in an effort to drive consumers to reuse bags and consume less. Plus this tax could be used for other important issues such as recycling education.
I’m not going to lie, some of these laws scare me. My entire professional life has been built around plastic packaging and these laws are guaranteed to disrupt that industry. I’m not alone in this either. The plastic industry is the 8th largest industry in the US, estimated to include over a million jobs, and 432 million dollars in shipments. That’s a lot of people directly impacted by these changes. And that’s not even including all of the people that would be indirectly effected such as those in the food and transportation industry.
However as I’ve said before, I don’t think it makes sense to support industries just because people work in them. We instead need to try and be as objective as possible when looking at these issues and take a utilitarian approach of whatever makes the greatest good for the most people. That being said, even if we are going to leverage the power of legislative actions, I think it’s important to have a plan for both the industries themselves to pivot, as well as having plans for alternatives. Removing options (plastic) without viable replacements isn’t a genuine solution.
So what genuine solutions can we actually consider? I believe the Recycle Act hits a lot of the pros without as many of the cons. For starters, based on our current structure, regardless of if we attempt to implement EPR, we will still be putting the responsibility of recycling products correctly on consumers. They will be the ones who need to put the right items into recycling bins in the correct way (clean and dry) . This is even more important if they want their goods to be cheap, otherwise EPR will mean bad recycling habits, which equates to higher cost of goods.
If we want to get at the root of our recycling issue, we need to address education surrounding our waste and recycling. That is the only way we will be able to begin to address the challenges of recycling. One of the simplest ways to achieve this would be a standardized labeling system. This is something I deeply believe the industry is missing. While I believe that capitalism is able to drive change, this is one example where I find it lacking. The plastic and packaging industry is simply too big to get aligned in a timely manner to create a standardized labeling system across the board. If a regulating agency such as the EPA produced a standard it would not only align the industry around a standard, but it would educate consumers. It would also likely drive alignment between producers and waste processors since the labels would need to be in agreement on how they are handled at end of life.
A standardized labeling system coupled with grants to increase education across the country would almost certainly lead to greater education for all consumers. Since this would require additional funding, I believe a bag bill for ALL bags (both plastic and paper) would be an effective way to recover some additional funds from consumers that aren’t willing to change their behavior, with the alternative simply being consumers using reusable bags.
However these recycling pushes need to be coupled with removing ineffective recycling efforts. I am specifically referring to the export of our “recyclables” to foreign countries, since those are rarely fully recycled. Removing the option to ship recyclables to other countries has to be combined with a domestic recycling infrastructure plan because recent studies have found that removing sale of waste to foreign nations leads to our recyclables simply ending up in the trash.
Lastly, I think there is value in understanding the risk factors associated with materials like plastic. Recent studies have shown that certain chemicals and plastics have risks to our reproductive system and general health. These studies need to be expanded so we can get a more precise idea of exactly which materials pose a threat to our health. Once we have that knowledge solidified, we should drive them out of our economy. I don’t however think it is worth shutting down the entire plastic industry overnight in an effort to stop materials that “might” be harmful. That would simply be too harmful to our economy.
So in summary, we should do the following: 1) Develop a standardized label system 2) Offer grants to increase consumer education 3) Implement a bag bill on ALL materials (possibly for any single use item outside of packaging) 4) Stop the shipment of waste and recyclables to foreign nations 5) Create a domestic recycling infrastructure plan (assuming there is a net benefit to this plan) and lastly 6) Fund scientific studies to understand which materials pose health risks and remove those from the market.
Yeahhh, it’s a lot. I love simple solutions as much as the next guy, but sometimes complex issues require thorough and complex solutions. But what do you think? Did I get it all wrong? How do you think we should address these issues? Let me know in the comments.