Kate Bailey

Kate Bailey

Amid export market turmoil, marine debris concerns and a shifting packaging sphere, public concern over plastics management has been rising. But municipalities have often been unsure of how to move forward.

Cities are typically hesitant to remove resin types from their programs, not wanting to sow seeds of doubt and confusion among residents. However, as recycling market prices stay low, local programs also face pressure to ensure they are running as lean and cost-effectively as possible.

Enter Kate Bailey, who leads Eco-Cycle Solutions, an organization that helps communities move toward zero waste and more efficient use of materials. Eco-Cycle also operates a publicly owned materials recovery facility in Boulder, Colo. and has helped contribute to the strong materials recovery ethic in that area of the country.

Bailey, who has been outspoken about the recycling problems caused by some plastic materials, will be speaking at the upcoming Resource Recycling Conference and Trade Show during a session called Plastic Realities at the Municipal Level, set for Aug. 28.

We caught up with Bailey to better understand her viewpoints on strengthening plastics recovery and reduction in materials use overall.

Do you think the U.S. at a turning point when it comes to recycling?

The U.S. has been facing mounting challenges with waste management for some time, but it took China’s import ban to finally create a crisis that has forced us to reckon with some of these fundamental issues.

One of the biggest problems is that we have set up the notion that recycling has to be cheaper than landfills. We have to stop looking at just the end of the pipe and seeing this as “waste management.” We need to recognize that how we use resources and materials is connected to many of our environmental and social issues, and a pivotal part of the solution to reduce climate pollution, protect our health, bolster local economies, and help reduce social conflicts.

What can municipalities around the country do to drive the recycling of more plastics?

Here in the U.S., change comes mostly from the ground up, so cities have a pivotal role to play to drive the recovery of plastics and reductions in plastics use. Here are several key strategies:

Use their tremendous purchasing power to eliminate their own purchasing of single-use, disposable plastics and push for reusable alternatives whenever possible. They can also give preference to safer, less toxic and more recyclable plastics.

Make recycling options more accessible and convenient for all residents, including apartment dwellers, and for all businesses as well.

Update their climate action plans and greenhouse gas inventories to include the climate impacts of consumption through consumption-based accounting. Currently, most cities don’t recognize recycling as a critical solution to address climate change because most of the impacts of our consumption occur outside of the cities’ boundaries. Recycling is one of the fastest, cheapest and most cost effective local actions to reduce GHG emissions now while we work on longer term changes to our transportation and energy systems.

What should the plastics industry do to support this effort?

Plastics companies have their backs up against the wall right now – no company wants their product littering the oceans and beaches. They are making a lot of bold promises to do more with recycled content, investing in recycling programs and setting goals to recycle all their containers. But some of these promises have been made before and not fulfilled, so I think we have to find a way to hold these companies fully accountable for their impacts.

In addition, I would suggest four strategies that would accelerate meaningful change: invest in new business models that promote reuse over recycling; commit to globally phasing out avoidable, single-use plastics most likely to cause marine litter; replace Nos. 3, 6 or 7 plastics with more recyclable, less toxic resins; and support efforts to include the full costs of their product in the price paid by consumers, so the externalized costs of production and disposal are no longer borne by cities and residents.

Does chemical recycling offer any hope in terms of the long-term quest to divert more plastics from the waste stream?

One of the biggest challenges with chemical recycling is that it has the potential to simply perpetuate our reliance on single-use, disposable plastics, which does not address the underlying problems with plastics production that threaten our climate and our health. The problem is not just that plastics are ending up in the ocean – the entire production life cycle is wreaking havoc on our planet and its populations.

I think the first question that needs to be asked is if we need this plastic product or packaging, and if there is a more sustainable or circular alternative. Then, if using that plastic and recycling is really the best option, chemical recycling may play a role in improving mechanical recycling or recovering polymers to make new products. But right now, I don’t see plastics-to-fuel as part of a circular economy.

What gives you hope in today’s day and age that zero waste is achievable?

The world is making serious commitments to a circular economy, so to me, it’s a matter of when we get there, not if.

One of the bright spots in these down recycling markets is that we are finally having real conversations about the limits of recycling and starting to look seriously at reuse alternatives. It is also encouraging to see the speed at which plastics have become a topic of global conversation and action in just the past two years, which shows the power of media to mobilize our collective consciousness toward action.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I am reminded of the power of innovation and science when we really put our minds to a goal. I think we need to set our sights on a circular economy and mobilize global action in the same spirit that we applied 50 years ago.

Bailey will be speaking on the Plastic Realities at the Municipal Level plenary session Wednesday, Aug. 28 at 8:30 a.m. Other panelists include Michael Sangiacomo, president and CEO of Recology; Zeina El-Azzi, chief development officer and senior vice president at Brightmark Energy; and Tim Ponrathnam, material scientist in the consumer packaging division at Berry Global.

Head to rrconference.com for the full schedule of events and to register today!