Legislative changes and consumer pressure could certainly create more of a market for at least some of the plastic that is now going straight into incinerators and landfills, says Wright, of the National Waste & Recycling Association. A legal requirement or company commitment to use more recycled material in plastic products, including those made of less frequently recycled plastics, could create incentives for manufacturers to make more recyclable products and for recycling facilities to do a better job sorting, processing, and actually recycling that material.
For example, the high demand for the type 1 plastic used in PET beverage bottles is largely due to consumers pressuring beverage companies to improve recycling processes and lawmakers requiring them to use a certain percentage of recycled plastic in their products. A California law passed last year, for instance, requires beverage bottles to be made of 15 percent recycled plastic. That will increase to 25 percent by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030. Requirements like these “force manufacturers to change the makeup of their products, to use more recyclable plastic or more environmentally friendly materials,” says Shanika Whitehurst, associate director of product sustainability, research, and testing at CR.
“Consumers really can change and push a market,” says Shelie Miller, PhD, a professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. “Plastic companies are actively looking into better recycling methods and how to design plastics to be more easily recyclable because they know this is such an important consumer issue.” The American Chemistry Council recently said it supports a national standard that would require all plastic packaging to contain at least 30 percent recyclable material by 2030.
Another part of the solution, according to Enck, Lifset, and others, is extended producer responsibility (EPR), which would require plastic makers and sellers to be responsible in some way for the life cycle of their products, including cleanup after they are sold. EPR usually involves producers either implementing collection programs themselves or funding local collection programs to ensure more products are recycled. An EPR system in British Columbia, for example, increased the share of plastic waste collected for recycling from 42 percent in 2018 to 52 percent in 2020.
In 2021, Maine became the first state in the U.S. to pass EPR legislation addressing packaging waste. The law will levy fees on companies that create or use packaging; fees will be lower for practices with less environmental impact, like using more recyclable materials. The fees will be used to fund local recycling efforts. Oregon passed an EPR law soon after Maine, and six other states have EPR bills in the works.
Enck says another worthy goal is eliminating single-use plastics, like plastic bags and polystyrene foam. But for such a change to have a positive impact, the items that replace them have to actually be reused—and often, says the University of Michigan’s Miller. “Someone who goes to the grocery store and forgets to bring reusable bags and every time buys a new reusable bag is creating a more [harmful] single-use item,” she says.
That suggests the real shift consumers need to make: More than just avoiding plastic, we need to evaluate our behavior and move away from unnecessary consumption and living a throwaway lifestyle. “If we’re really honest, any solution will require us to analyze our own consumption to try to understand what we’re consuming and why, and whether there are ways to reduce our individual consumption,” Miller says. She acknowledges that’s a tall order for a lot of people. It’s much easier to say “I can consume anything I want. I’ll just recycle it.”