California's Rigid Plastic Packaging Container Program: Is it working?

Posted by Chandler Slavin on Jul 22, 2014 12:30:00 PM

Hey guys,

We have had several customers approach us with questions about California's Rigid Plastic Packaging Container Program; what it is, and how to become compliant? I may have mentioned that at last year's Pack Expo in Las Vegas the AVPM, which I served on the Board of, invited Victor Bell of Environmental Packaging International to present on this topic. He and his company work to help international brands meet various environmental and reporting compliancy issues. I have received permission to post portions of this presentation here, for my devoted sustainable packaging loves.

Before I get into the nitty gritty, however, I think it is important to put this legislation into perspective. In its essence, this program looks to increase recycling of rigid plastic containers in California. This is in part to support another piece of legislation in CA (The Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989), which requires cities and counties to reduce the amount of waste disposed in landfills by 50% by 2000 through source reduction, recycling, and composting. The RPPC bill aims to increase recycling of plastic containers (and reduce the amount of plastic containers going to landfill) by requiring increasing levels of postconsumer recycled materials be incorporated into plastic containers sold in California. The law states,

...It is therefore, the intent of the Legislature to spur markets for plastic materials collected for recycling by requiring manufactures utilizing increasing amounts of postconsumer recycled material in their rigid plastic containers only if the use of that material does not present an unreasonably risk to the public health and safety, and to achieve high recycling rates for these rigid plastic packaging containers.

Sounds rad. I like recycling. I like waste diversion. But I honestly don't really get it. And here is why: in 2012 Moore Recycling Associates reports that plastic PET thermoformed containers (plastic clamshells, blisters, trays, etc.) are now "accepted for recycling in the majority of American communities," and therefore, technically recyclable. This was an awesome accomplishment for all plastics and PET stakeholders and the result of years of collaboration, investment, and execution: Industry had to demonstrate to recyclers that collecting PET plastic rigid containers would provide value and not contaminate the existing PET bottle stream; municipalities had to communicate to residents what materials were now accepted via curb side systems; specs for purchasing PET thermoform and bottle bales and PET thermoform only bales had to be created and published; sorting and baling technologies had to be developed to allow for the efficient sortation and sale of PET thermoform containers; and, domestic and international markets had to be assured of a consistent, quality stream of post consumer PET thermoform recyclate. What I am trying to say is that the plastics industry brought their A game when it came to getting PET thermoformed containers included in the country's recycling infrastructure.

Fast forward to 2013 and reports show that plastic rigid containers continue to be accepted for recycling, at a rate much high than their paperboard and molded pulp counterparts. So hey, Whole Foods, your molded pulp takeout containers are all going to landfill, sorry. Unless you have partnered with a local composting facility that will accept the dirty containers for composting, which is super doubtful being that there is only a handful in the country, none which to my knowledge have partnered with retailers like Whole Foods. But I am getting off track.

So great, we are accepting plastic rigid containers for recycling. But are they actually being recycled? Any plastics buyer will tell you that post consumer PET regrind has a cost premium, as you conceptually pay for the process of recycling, which is more expensive than the process of virgin material production (plastics production is a by product of fossil fuel extraction). So we now are requiring brands to increase the amount of post consumer plastic in the packaging they buy even though this material is more expensive than virgin or post industrial plastics and even though these same brands are already sourcing the cheapest products from the cheapest labor pools of the world in order to remain competitive in the global retail environment.

I thought that an economically sustainable model for post consumer plastics recycling could be achieved where the cost of recycling is competitive with the cost of virgin material production (2010 Recycling Report). After further research, however, I have concluded that recycling will always be a cost; the question now needs to become, who's cost (2013 Recycling Report)?

These sentiments are echoed in an email exchange I had with my friend at CalRecycle, the same friend who guided me through the research that later culminated in my 2010 Recycling Report (available above for download). I explained that I have grown frustrated with trying to increase the recycling rates of post consumer plastic packaging because it doesn't seem as though a sustainable economic model exists, which would catalyze increased plastics recycling. In other words, if there was money to be made in recycling post consumer plastics, we would recycle post consumer plastics.

I write,

I feel as though I have arrived at a cross roads of sorts with my research; what else do you think the industry needs to do to increase plastic recycling rates? If thermoforms can be recycled now, will they? Not unless there is economic motivation to do so. Or political requirement? Is that what the California Rigid Plastic Packaging Container Program attempts to facilitate? That is, increasing plastic recycling in California by requiring recycled content in the packaging? Who is supposed to pay for the premium cost of post consumer plastics recyclate?

My friend responds,

You have found yourself faced with the same issue we at CalRecycle (or any group looking to increase recycling rates) eventually finds themselves. There's no good real answer. Once you have removed the technological barriers to recycling, how do you take that next step and actually make it happen? If you ask the free market folks they will say that if it can be done, the free market will do it. If the free market doesn't do it then it can't be done without expensive government requirements and/or subsidies. Others feel that you need to develop the end market by developing buyers for goods made from recycled content and yet others say you must make it easier for the collection, sorting, recycling processes to provide feedstock at a reasonable price.

All of these approaches have been tried for nearly every material and some work better than others but it's very specific to the material in question and nothing is a "silver bullet."

I think you are right that the intent of [CA RPPC] is to increase recycling by requiring more recycled content in rigid plastic packages. But who pays for the premium? Ultimately the consumers (theoretically at least), however the cost of materials would be initially borne by the packaging manufacturer (though there is nothing that I' aware of that specifically dictates how the economics work).*

How is it possible that this CA RPPC program has been on the books since 1991 yet we are still unsure of how the economics work? What is the status of this program? Is it increasing recycling? Is it working?

*Please note: the response above is from my friend at CalRecycle, who does not work on the RPPC program, and therefore can't be considered as speaking on behalf of the RPPC group. I have reached out to the RPPC group at CalRecycle to attain information on the program's success. Stay tuned!!!

I will post Bell's presentation re: CA RPPC program, in my next blog. Thought I'd let you mull this over for a bit.

Below is a 5 minute presentaion I gave on the economics of recycling post consumer plastic packaging for RECOUP's Plastics Recycling Conference. It provides a nice overview of my research. And a sweet mug shot.

plastic clamshell

Above: Example of PET thermoformed plastic container