Over the past several months, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) has been studying the issue of degradable additives and how the inclusion of these compounds in the manufacture of plastic items can impact their recyclability.
ISRI and the members of its Plastics Division have talked to experts and stakeholder groups that have done significant research into this issue to help formulate the organization’s opinions. After a thorough process, ISRI’s Board approved a policy statement that encapsulates what the research found.
The main tenets of ISRI’s new degradable additives policy are that:
- Any claims to the use of the terms “bio-degradable,” “oxo-degradable,” or photo-degradable” are backed up by independent third-party research and testing using accepted standard methods and specifications published by ASTM, ISO, or other standard-making bodies;
- The introduction of products that contain degradable additives must not harm or compromise currently acceptable recycling practices or the established plastic recycling infrastructure; and
- Does not encourage or excuse poor consumer behavior such as littering.
It is that last point that deserves particular focus for a moment. Unfortunately, many in the public believe that if something is degradable it’s OK to throw it out or even toss it on the ground because it will “disappear.” This is far from the truth, as these items do not simply disappear – they turn into micro- and nanoparticles, which enter the waterways. These microparticles harm the environment and can find their way into the food supply. Plastics entering our waterways should simply be unacceptable.
Ultimately, the only way to stop this is by ensuring recyclable plastics are captured through the recycling stream. Unfortunately, plastic film is one of the items that can find its way into our waterways. ISRI’s policy on plastic film is very clear, and we believe that these items should be brought back to retailers for proper collection. This is just one method to ensure that plastics stay out of our waterways and are properly collected. To support and promote retail collection of plastic film, ISRI is working with partnerships such as the Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP) to help increase film recycling and improve recovery.
The public may have the perception that it’s OK to litter due to the confusion over the terms “bio-degradable,” “oxo-degradable,” or “photo-degradable.” All too often, people are faced with mixed messages from a number of sources and sorting out these messages can be difficult. The only way we can help them understand what happens to plastic litter and debris is by furthering cooperative efforts amongst stakeholders and educating the public about what these terms mean. It is important the public understand the impacts plastic litter has on the environment and the real benefits recycling can provide in mitigating this situation. Clearing up these misperceptions is a key part in providing a solution.
The benefits of recycling as a job creator and environmental steward cannot be overstated. ISRI’s 2017 Economic Impact Study found that the people and firms that purchase, process, and broker old materials to be manufactured into new products in America provide 534,506 adults with employment in the U.S. and generate approximately $117 billion annually in economic activity. And while these figures encompass all commodities and recycling activity in the U.S., activities that may harm or reduce recycling, such as degradable additives, can have a substantial impact on these numbers. Degradable additives take a valuable resource out of the recycling stream and reduces the number of times the plastic can be recycled. By reducing the number of times the material can be recycled, we’re wasting this resource.
ISRI’s members are the first link in the value chain and ensure plastics are responsibly recovered, processed and sent to markets where they can be made into new products. As such, ISRI is concerned of the impact the use of degradable additives may have on the entire recycling infrastructure. By their very nature, degradable additives are meant to shorten the service life of the plastics that they’re added to. For this reason, there may be questions as to the quality of this material.
Unfortunately, there is simply no way to know which products degradable additives are added to. If you recall, our policy suggests that materials with degradable additives do not harm the current recycling infrastructure and that any plastic that contains degradable additives be certified it will not harm this infrastructure. Without those safeguards in place, we suggest that these compounds not be added to plastic until these certifications can be achieved.
The plastics recycling industry has spent the past several decades developing and investing in the expertise and equipment needed to recycle plastics in an environmentally sustainable way. Ultimately, it is up to us as an industry to let the public and other stakeholders know about anything that may harm recycling. Oftentimes, this outreach can be difficult, but it is necessary if we are to ensure a thriving recycling industry and continue to improve and protect our environment.
Jonathan Levy is the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries’ Plastics Division Liaison.
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