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The Canada Plastics Pact is taking real action on plastics and packaging waste

The Canada Plastics Pact is taking real action on plastics and packaging waste

At the end of January, the Canada Plastics Pact (CPP) was launched with the ambitious goal of addressing plastics packaging waste and pollution with immediate action and by creating a true circular economy for all plastics. The global Plastics Pact, which involves commitments from ten nations, including the U.S. which signed on in 2020, is spearheaded by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation globally and in Canada by host organization The Natural Step Canada, a national charity dedicated to the acceleration of the circular economy.

The Pact in general terms is meant to bring together key players through the entire plastics supply chain to collectively work toward ambitious 2025 goals to effectively tackle the disconnect between the design and production of plastic packaging and goods, and the efficiency of our plastics recycling infrastructure and end markets to keep it from ending up in landfill or the environment. Because plastic packaging accounts for 47 percent of all plastic waste, it is the immediate focus of the CPP's collective efforts.

What makes this new initiative stand out from what has come before is that the overall end-goal of the Canada Plastics Pact is not just to conduct studies and talk about plans to reduce plastic waste, but to take action as an entire industry to eliminate plastic waste through the development of a true, sustainable circular economy that would recycle all plastics and keep this valuable material in circulation for as long as possible.

The CPP is working toward four clear, actionable targets by 2025:
1.) To define a list of plastic packaging that is to be designated as problematic or unnecessary and take measures to eliminate them;
2.) Support efforts toward 100 percent of plastic packaging being designed to be reusable, recyclable or compostable;
3.) Undertake ambitious actions to ensure that at least 50 percent of plastic packaging is effectively recycled or composted;
4.) Ensure an average of at least 30 percent recycled content across all plastic packaging (by weight).The new Canada Plastics Pact also stands out with respect to the weight of the corporate and plastics industry partners who have signed on.

"Joining together through the CPP is a diverse group of leaders from across Canada's plastics value chain," commented David Hughes, CEO, The Natural Step Canada. "While I am impressed by their genuine commitment to achieving a zero plastic waste economy, it is their willingness to break down barriers between each other to scale truly innovative solutions that I find most inspiring."

In total, more than 40 partners have joined the Canada Plastics Pact, representing diverse parts of the plastics value chain, from leading brands to waste management companies, government institutions and NGOs. Canada Plastics Pact partners range from key industry associations such as the Canadian Beverage Association, Recycling Council of Alberta and the David Suzuki Foundation, to huge retailers including Canadian Tire, Walmart and Loblaws, as well as massive goods and packaging producers like Coca-Cola Canada and Maple Leaf Foods. The pact has also solidified commitment from major waste management and recycling firms such as Emterra Group and Pyrowave, as well as government entities, including Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Cities of Vancouver and Edmonton.

Watch the video at this LINK to hear from Canada's environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson and Ellen MacArthur's Sonja Wegge.

An appetite for change

According to George Roter, the newly appointed managing director of the Canada Plastics Pact, with respect to plastics waste we have both a problem and an opportunity.

"About 3 million tons of plastics are produced every year in Canada, and only about 8 to 10 percent of that actually gets recycled and turned back into materials that get recirculated," says Roter. "It's a huge problem and it really requires a collaborative approach and a platform that brings everyone together. I'm inspired by the scale of the challenge, and I'm inspired by the platform that we've built that really allows a cross-sectoral collaboration with the CPP."

He says that while the task at hand is a great challenge, the transformation into a system that efficiently recirculates plastics over and over is also a tremendous opportunity for the plastics industry. By estimates of industry reports (a recent one by Deloitte) it is an approximately $8 billion opportunity for Canada's GDP.

"And there is appetite for it," says Roter. "There's appetite amongst industry and business at all parts of the value chain. There's appetite with the federal government, with provincial governments, and with stewards. And we have a system in Canada that is ready to shift the whole existing economy around plastics and how plastics are used, from a make-waste type of system to one where we keep plastics in the economy and out of the environment."

Roter says of particular significance to the Canada Plastics Pact, in comparison to initiatives which have come before, is the concrete commitment to action from very large corporate partners.

"When you look at the partners we have launched with, it tells you how much this pact is really an amazing collaboration platform that goes right from resin producers all the way down the chain to packaging manufacturers, to consumer goods product makers, to retailers, to recyclers, to processors. All the way along the chain, we have representatives who are members of the Plastics Pact.

"It is significant that it's one of the first times that all of these various entities are going to be at the table, whether they are businesses or NGOs or governments, they will be sitting together, looking at the same problem, and looking at a clear set of four targets for 2025."

In some sectors, at this early stage, Roter says 20 to 40 percent of the market in Canada is represented as part of the pact.

"And we're just getting started."

Taking immediate action

For Roter, the first task is agreeing on an agenda.

"We have amazing, ambitious goals for 2025: we want to get to the point where 100 percent of plastic packaging is designed to be reusable, recyclable or compostable. We want to get to the point where 50 percent of packaging is effectively recycled or composted, and where there's an average of 30 percent recycled content across all plastic packaging in Canada.

He says task number one is to get every participant in the pact to agree on the biggest opportunities and determine a road map. Questions to answer include: What are the key outcomes? What are the milestones to aim for? What are the steps along the way? How do we organize ourselves toward really going after opportunity areas? Roter notes they have also made a commitment to be fully transparent, with a CPP progress report to be made publicly available each year.

"Step number one is establishing our road map and plan for the next five years," says Roter. "The second thing that we want to focus on are immediate actions that we can take, particularly where there is a lot of alignment already, and where we can start moving forward immediately.

"We all know the high-level problems, but what are the granular, individual problems that we can act on and how do we get together and put a very clear and specific action plan in place to address those individual problems, and do so together?"

Roter continues, "The purchasing power of large retailers, the amount of market power we have with some of the consumer goods manufacturers that we have in the Pact is significant." He adds that those partners that have come to the table so far have clearly expressed that they feel this isn't just a 'talk shop.'

"It is really obvious when we talk to the Pact partners that we've already brought on board that they enthusiastically want us to be able to sit down and figure out what is the specific problem and how we can work together and act together to be able to address it.

"One example of immediate actions that are on the table from the start is the proposal to adapt into Canada the Golden Design Rules developed by the global Consumer Goods Forum, with its focus on both increasing the overall value of PET and removing problematic elements from packaging. 

"That's an example of going upstream and saying, ‘If we want circularity and material circulation through recyclers, then we want to deal with problem plastics,' which has to start at the design stage.

"What we really want to do with the Pact is to be able to take these Golden Design Rules that have been developed, and bring them into Canada. Let's get everybody at the same table, look at the rules and figure out what should be our adaptation. And how do we start to implement these changes within the various companies who are part of the Pact?

"We want to have this kind of action be an agreed upon, harmonized set of ideas that not just consumer goods manufacturers have agreed on, but also we have agreed on, and recyclers have agreed on, and sorting facilities and MRFs have agreed on."

He adds that taking action is about the details as well. For example, "Everybody says that black plastic is a problem for our systems. True in part, but there is a market for some recycled black plastics. Today's machines can sort it out, so let's actually sit down as a whole industry and figure out what about black plastic is actually a problem for the system, and what is not a problem. And then, now that we've agreed on that, we can address our designs and our product choices, and our recycling systems.

"Everyone in the Pact clearly wants this to be a platform for action and commitment to action, not just talk."

Approximately 3 million tons of plastics are produced every year in Canada, but only about 8 to 10 percent of that gets recycled and turned back into materials to be recirculated.

From design for recycling to end markets

Beyond the support of massive corporate partners, also very significant to the Canada Plastics Pact is the market power of the large-scale recyclers and material processors who have signed on. A major part of the action required from the plastics recycling industry, as part of making the pact commitments successful, will be to drive the collection, infrastructure, technological and market adaptations necessary for the whole plan to work.

"Recyclers are only going to do so if it economically makes sense," says Roter. "This has been a main challenge for a long time. Virgin plastic value goes up and down, and so recovered plastic has to compete against it at any given time, and the demand for recycled content is uncertain.

"So if I'm a recycler, I might look at that and say, ‘I don't know if I can make a long-term investment in hundreds of thousands of dollars of capital equipment.'

"So, one of the things that we want to do is sit down and have recyclers be at the table, and tell us, ‘here is the level of investment that we would actually need to make this happen, and here is the time horizon over which we need to be thinking about it.'"

He says then it would be about figuring out how to get a sense of the demand to allow recyclers to make those investments. Development of end markets with consistent, reliable demand, is definitely one key component of the Plastics Pact equation, but it also has to correspond with upstream changes.

"There is a lot about the plastics recycling sector that will respond really well to good, reliable end markets," says Roter. "Yet, it's probably not enough. If you do establish great end markets, but the design of some of the packaging materials is such that you have items that still can't easily be recycled or separated, then all of a sudden, your upstream supply is really not going to match your downstream demand, and that's a problem. That needs to be addressed and changed.

"One of the large producers can say, ‘We want to have a cosmetic bottle and we think those could be 50 or 60 percent recycled content, but if we switch, we are going to need a consistent, reliable source of this amount of volume of recycled plastic material at a high quality, in this location, and we want it to be produced in Canada.'

"For the system to respond to that, what is the investment level needed?" asks Roter. "How do the logistics need to line up? Do any unique changes need to happen at the MRF level?"

He continues, "It's about having this level of detailed conversation and setting action plans with a variety of different companies, so that the market signal coming from the producers actually results in changes throughout the system that are really positive."

Roter emphasizes that there are many factors involved in making this transition. For example, if there is large amounts of upstream contamination coming into the stream, it makes everything less efficient, and keeps profit margins for recyclers low. In essence, the demand signals can be strong, but unless the upstream changes are made to eliminate contamination, it will remain difficult to get the efficiency within the entire system to make it economically work.

"First and foremost, I really hope that the Plastics Pact gives a platform for the MRFs to engage more directly with producers to be able to say, ‘here's the conversation we need to have. Here are the challenges we are facing. Here are the challenges on our demand, and here are the challenges on infrastructure investment.' My hope is that we really become a platform that brings about a conversation that may not be happening at all, or may not be happening at enough of a high level of detail."

He says with respect to MRFs and other plastics recyclers, the overall goal is to understand the best ways to make running a recycling facility more profitable, more sustainable and more predictable. "What are the pieces that need to be in place for that to happen? That's exactly the type of conversation that we want to be able to host for the CPP."

Action at both the local and national level

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the driving organizational force behind all of the global Plastic Pacts now in place, has been leading the way as a foundation and think tank on global circularity for many years.

"They launched the New Plastics Economy initiative as a way to instantiate what a shift to a circular economy looks like in a very well-defined industrial space," explains Roter. "So all the global commitments are part of that. They also realized that while getting as many companies as they could get committing to these goals globally is ideal, a lot of this ends up being done at the national level, because that's where the action needs to happen, that's where the markets are.

"So that's really where this network of national plastics pacts comes in, of which there are 10 around the world. If we have these kinds of global aims, we have to establish what the national level action looks like, based on the very specific context within each country."

"Canada has its own unique ecosystem," continues Roter. "We have substantial resin and chemical industry here. We also have our own particular brand of decentralized federalism. Lots of factors will come into play."

"We're very much aligned with that broader network of nine other national pacts, learning from what's working in other countries and in other regions, sharing knowledge, and then using that to create a Canadian plan."

He notes as well that the Pact is not supposed to be duplicative or a replacement for other initiatives that are already established. 

"We see it as very complementary to other current initiatives, and as a way to bring a lot of those activities to the table, as a platform that's able to align and engage stakeholders with one another," says Roter. "We really hope to amplify and scale the work that's already underway. 

"We are in the first steps of this journey. Hopefully, we'll be having some great successes within the next year that we can share with the global Plastics Pact." RPN

This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of Recycling Product News, Volume 29, Number 2.

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