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“There’s your product. It’s all plastic bags,” I said to Phil Rozenski, during a recent debate about plastic bag bans at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. The object was a 45-pound mass of tangled plastic bags found in the stomach of a dead camel in the desert of Dubai.

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The intention was to point out that in a true circular economy we must not use plastic––what economists call a  “technical material”––for single-use, throwaway-designed products and packaging. Because these designs escape the system, a “biological material” must be used. For half an hour, Phil and I went back and forth about statistics that we each use to defend our positions for and against bag bans.  

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I wanted to get to the bottom of it, so I said, “We could go back and forth all day arguing our convenient statistics, and dig in our heels on where we stand, but if we get to the bottom of it, my point is that your product, by design, is escaping the recycle and recovery systems the developed world has put in place. Plastic is a dangerous material in the environment, so the logical next step is to remove and improve the design.”  

Phil 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 consumption to recovery, and remanufracture into a new product again.

Specifically, How2Recycle is a more informed labeling system that alerts the consumer to the recyclability of a product in the region where the consumer lives. It directs people where to go to recycle their products and packaging, whether it be a curbside recycling system 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 that makes us all think everything can be recycled. Remember, that little triangle with arrows and a number inside is nothing more then a resin identification system. It has nothing to do with recyclability.

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As the conversation with How2Recycle continued, we got into a discussion about products that fail to be recovered, like straws, ketchup packs, candy wrappers, chip bags and plastic bags. I asked, “Where do you stand on products like these and others that you can’t stick a label on, and if you did they would likely never get recycled because there’s no value and therefore no incentive to pick it up?”

The answer was quite simple. They said, “We are material neutral.” That means the How2Recycle program, and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as a whole, does not weigh in on the material of choice a company makes, instead they aim to facilitate improving recyclability.

What’s missing here is a willingness to stand against poorly-conceived applications of plastic. If you’re not addressing irrecoverable design using a technical material, then you’re missing one of the tenants of a circular economy. 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. It is the ethos of doing business where any regulation, as in the federal microbead ban or plastic bag ban, is seen as heresy to the free market system. It’s an unwavering belief that the market regulates itself and any constraints will stifle innovation.

Our position is that the market is not sufficiently influenced by environmental or social justice issues. Legislative policy is essential to move plastic to a circular economy. We’ve witnessed Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble lobby heavily against conservationists and scientists over putting hundreds of thousands of plastic microbeads in each tube of their face washes and toothpastes. We even had published research on their product in U.S. rivers and lakes to show them. Self-regulation to end those costly externalities didn’t work. It took a policy campaign to change the rules and level the playing field.  

This is why a Plastic Bag Bans are essential. There is overwhelming evidence that plastic bags cause sufficient harm to the environment, are irrecoverable (as evidenced by persistent single-digit percent recovery rates), have economic impacts (as navigational hazards when drifting out to sea), and are costly to taxpayers (necessitate local cleanup). Legislative policy is essential in this case to fix this design error and level the playing field, so an innovative replacement––that doesn’t have costly externalities––can thrive.  

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