The Recycling Partnership recently announced what is reportedly the first-ever roadmap aimed at addressing systemic issues in the U.S. recycling system and catalyzing the transition toward a circular economy for packaging. Entitled “The Bridge to Circularity: Putting the ‘New Plastics Economy’ into Practice in the U.S.,” the report is inspired and endorsed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose New Plastics Economy Global Commitment unites more than 400 businesses, governments, and other organizations behind a common vision and targets to address plastic waste and pollution at its source.

According to the roadmap, there is no single solution to transition to a circular economy, which is an economic system aimed at eliminating waste by design, keeping materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. To build a bridge between the current system and an optimized circular system, The Recycling Partnership is calling for a set of concrete actions based on three distinct issues currently undermining the U.S. recycling industry.

First, the speed of packaging innovation has outpaced the capabilities of our recycling infrastructure. Most plastic packaging is either not being collected for recycling or is simply not currently recyclable. To meet the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment target that 100% of plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025, brands, organizations, and governments must align packaging with the realities of the current recycling system while also investing to advance the system.

With “Pathway to Recyclability,” The Recycling Partnership is initiating a more granular process detailing how to move a package from technically recyclable to commonly accepted for recycling with partners such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) and the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR). Collaborations are also being launched with the goal of optimizing the system for multiple materials and packaging formats, including (but not exclusive to) plastics.

Second, as it stands, the U.S. recycling system cannot deliver the supply of recycled materials demanded by the Global Commitment. In fact, the report uses the case study of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle recycling and finds an annual gap of over 1 billion lbs between the current U.S. supply and projected demand for recycled PET (RPET) in bottles; this is just one packaging material type among many. It will be impossible for many companies to meet their ambitious recycled content commitments without significant interventions in the recycling system.

The Recycling Partnership will launch an industry-wide $250 million residential recycling intervention called “Unlocking Supply” to capture more than 340 million lbs of post-consumer plastics, in addition to over 2 billion lbs of other packaging materials. The report identifies specific strategies to put the capital to immediate use to benefit U.S. communities.

Third, intractable and underlying challenges create a difficult environment in which to develop a sustainably funded and responsive future recycling system. Bold innovation, supported by transformative policy, is critical to tackling the extensive issues within the current system.

A new “Recycling 2.0” initiative calls for $250 million over five years to design and implement the recycling system of the future by advancing technology, building more robust data systems, and enhancing consumer participation. In addition, in early 2020, a new policy proposal will be launched to address the unique challenges in the U.S. packaging system with the goal of achieving a sustainably funded recycling system for all materials.

“Our current recycling system is fundamentally underfunded and incapable of delivering a circular economy without dramatic evolution,” said Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership. “With this report, we are providing the clear roadmap to create a new and improved recycling system of the future. We’re providing actionable solutions to help current and future partners build a sustainable and effective recycling system in the U.S.

“To make this a reality, we’re calling for $500 million to fund these new initiatives. This will be the first step toward fully optimizing our nation’s recycling capabilities and ultimately building the bridge to a circular economy.”

The report recommends that plastics packaging be used as the entry point to catalyze system change. However, it repeatedly stresses the importance of building an improved system for all materials, not just plastics.

“Concentrating on plastics alone will not create a viable platform for a truly circular economy, nor will recycling alone ultimately suffice,” said Harrison.

“Tackling the global plastic waste and pollution crisis requires concerted action at a global and local level,” said Sander Defruyt, lead at the New Plastics Economy initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “We are delighted to see The Recycling Partnership translate the ambitious targets of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment into concrete and progressive actions to be taken in the U.S., urging businesses and governments in the country to step up efforts towards transitioning to a circular economy for plastics. Stakeholders in the U.S., as well as around the world, must address plastic pollution at its source, by eliminating the plastics we don’t need, innovating the plastics we do need, and circulating them safely in the economy to keep them out of the environment.”

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