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Why We Must Ban Plastic Bags and Support a Circular Economy

Insights + Opinion

"There's your product. It's all plastic bags," I said to Phil Rozenski, director of sustainability and marketing for Novalex, a plastic bag manufacturer. We were on stage debating the efficacy of plastic bags at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition annual conference in Charlotte, North Carolina in early October.

The object I was referring to was a 45-pound mass of tangled plastic bags found in the stomach of a dead camel in the desert of Dubai. The intention was to point out that in a circular economy products and packaging that escape the best recovery systems on the planet and cost taxpayers unfairly to clean up the mess, must be replaced with a design that is a benefit rather than a cost once you include the inconvenient externalities.

The object I was referring to was a 45-pound mass of tangled plastic bags found in the stomach of a dead camel in the desert of Dubai. Photo credit: Marcus Eriksen / 5 Gyres Institute

For half an hour we went back and forth about statistics that we each use to defend our positions, pointing to the other's faulty arguments, but I wanted to get to the bottom of it, so I said, "You know, we could go back and forth all day with our convenient statistics, knowing we're just gonna dig in our heels on where we stand. Can we get beyond it all?"

My point was very simple. Plastic bags by design are really good at escaping our recovery systems and knowing now how dangerous plastics are to the environment, the logical next step is a design overhaul. Out with the old and in with the new. Rozenski nodded his head, then responded, "Would you be willing to support our How2Recycle program?" Two weeks later I was on a call with How2Recycle representatives.

How2Recycle was born out of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and their work to create a circular economy around plastic products and packaging in order to keep materials out of the dump or incinerator and instead keep them moving in a circular system from production and manufacturing to consumption and recovery.

Specifically, How2Recycle is a more informed labeling system that alerts the consumer to the recycleability of a product in the region where the customer lives. It directs people where to go to recycle, whether it's curbside collection or returning your materials to the store where it came from. It will be a vast improvement to clear the confusion around the chasing arrow triangle with number in the middle that makes everyone think that everything is recycled. That number is only a resin code and doesn't direct consumers where to go.

As we spoke with How2Recycle, we got into a discussion about irrecoverable products. The 5 Gyres Institute, working with a wide coalition of partners across the country, promotes a legislative ban on plastic microbeads in consumer products. In 2015, nine states have passed bans. The microbead ban eliminates the use of salt grain-sized particles of plastic in cosmetics and toothpaste that are designed to wash down the drain after use. It's a huge design flaw, completely irrecoverable from anywhere, therefore the only solution is to level the playing field through legislation and make room for companies to innovate a chemically benign alternative. In our throwaway society there are hundreds of applications of plastic that are irrecoverable, from gum wrappers to sachet packets, these are design failures that evade recovery and are not recycled in any practical, meaningful terms.

When I asked the How2Recycle representatives, "Where do you stand on products like this and others that you can't stick a recycle label on and if you did they would likely never get recycled anyway because of their elusive design? Like candy wrappers, plastic stir sticks, catchup packets, the list goes on and on." The answer was quite simple. They said, "We are material neutral." That means the How2Recycle program and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as a whole, do not weigh in on the material of choice a company uses. Instead, they aim to improve recyclability.

The contradiction here is that if you are not willing to stand against poorly conceived applications of plastic, then you're not addressing irrecoverable design, which is one of the tenants of a circular economy. You must make design choices that fit a system of efficient recovery or go for environmentally benign materials. You can't be for a circular economy and be materials neutral at the same time.

But what this contradiction unveils is a deeper set of philosophical assumptions that trump the recycling conversation. It is the ethos of doing business where any scent of regulation, as in microbead or plastic bag bans, is seen as heresy to the free market system. It's an unwavering belief that the market regulates itself and any constraints undermine innovation. The consensus among nonprofits working on waste issues is that for the sake of public good, harmful materials need to be removed from society if evidence shows they cause harm. This is the divide between industry and conservation that fuels the contradiction.

So then what is the solution? We look for common values. We all believe in being responsible citizens. And we all believe that doing things that hurt other people and causes suffering is wrong. When we accept the latest science about plastic ocean pollution and the danger it poses to the environment and marine food webs, it is clear that plastic in the environment becomes dangerous as it shreds into microplastics, absorbs toxins and has ecosystem-wide impacts. Plastic in the environment is doing harm and responsibility must be shared across sectors, including the courage to eliminate poorly designed products and packaging. The industries that make plastic products and packaging have enjoyed the economic benefit of deferring the cost and responsibilities for these externalities to municipalities and taxpayers.

We ask the members of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition to reject being "materials neutral" and take a stronger position of poor design choices. Science has proven the increased risks plastic pose to to the world. That justifies greater responsibility.

Watch my presentation here:

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