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Tina Casey headshot

Why Labor Shortages Could Stall Any Recycling Progress

The U.S. labor shortage is one key reason why companies must think beyond recycling and strive to reduce the sheer volume of plastic in waste streams.
By Tina Casey

Efforts to manage the global plastic waste crisis have been intensifying, partly with an assist from leading producers and users of plastic packaging. The active participation of those with a financial stake in the mess is a welcome development. However, much of the focus is on recycling, and that could become a problem. The ongoing labor shortage in the U.S. is yet another indication that reducing the sheer volume of plastic in the waste stream should be the main imperative, whether it is recycled or not.

Assessing global action on recycling plastic waste

U.S corporations have begun to take action through the U.S. Plastics Pact, which launched in August 2020 to support the global Plastics Pact Network project of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Along with the U.S., the current member nations of the network are the U.K., France, Chile, the Netherlands, South Africa, Portugal, Poland and Canada along with the regional European Plastics Pact and the Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Islands (ANZPAC) Plastics Pact.

That leaves some gaping holes in terms of global action, but this network can still make a significant difference. Stakeholders in the member nations and regions have committed themselves to taking five action steps. Two of the five steps are aimed at reducing the amount of plastic in the waste stream. One involves redesigning and innovating to exclude “unnecessary and problematic” plastic materials from packaging. The other focuses on moving away from single-use items.

However, the Plastic Pact model still allows plenty of wiggle room for plastic in the waste stream. The other three commitments involve improvements in recycling systems, and increasing the use of recycled content in plastic packaging.

Unless members make significant progress on their plastic-reducing commitments, there is a clear possibility that more plastics will continue to enter the global recycling stream, which has already proved to be overburdened, ineffective and inefficient.

U.S. tackles the “problematic and unnecessary” problem

To their credit, members of the U.S. Plastics Pact are making a serious attempt to put the plastic genie back in the bottle.

Last week, the U.S. Plastics Pact fulfilled one part of its commitment to the Plastics Pact Network, when it published its first Problematic and Unnecessary Materials List. The list details 11 items that are not currently reusable, recyclable, or compostable at scale in the U.S.

The list is significant because it represents the work of leading stakeholders in the plastic packaging field. The list was produced as a collaborative project by more than 100 U.S. Plastic Pact members, including consumer packaged goods, retail, and plastic materials conversion companies. As a group, the participating businesses produce 33 percent of plastics by volume that are included in the U.S. Plastic Pact scope.

“… primary, secondary, and tertiary packaging with both consumer and commercial applications will be considered in scope,” the U.S. Plastic Pact explains. “This recognizes that all of these packaging types have consequential environmental impacts and that each are feasibly subject to substantive and necessary action under the four U.S. Pact targets.”

The list of 11 items is an ambitious one. It includes unneeded single use cutlery, stirrers and straws as well as polystyrene and other specific materials. Several types of pigments and other additives are also on the list, and labeling is a particular area of focus.

Are brands stepping up and taking responsibility?

Coca-Cola, Clorox, Walmart and other corporate U.S. Plastic Pact members have taken on some risk by outing themselves as leading contributors to the plastic waste stream. However, many of these companies have already taken steps to reduce plastic packaging. The Plastic Pact provides them with an additional platform to craft a more positive brand reputation.

Developing the list of 11 forbidden items is just the first step. Plastic Pact members have also committed themselves to take up the role of “Activators.” They are tasked with developing guidelines for sustainable alternatives, with the goal of eliminating the items on the list by 2025.

A similar effort is under way through the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), which counts 400 CEOs and other executives on its member rolls.

Last July, the CFG Coalition of Action on Plastic Waste completed its “Golden Design Rules” for reforming the use of plastic. The project, which was inspired by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, began in 2020 under the sponsorship of CEOs from Loblaw and Unilever, with Mars and Walmart as co-chairs.

“Coalition members are committing to individual rules after identifying and prioritizing opportunities in their own packaging portfolios where they can make targeted and valuable impact,” CFG explains.

The new rules have the potential to make a significant impact in the coming years. The total revenue for CFG members adds up to 1 trillion euros, accounting for more than 10 percent of the global plastic packaging market.

However, as with the Plastic Pact approach, the Golden Design Rules promote the use of “less and better” plastic, while allowing ample room for more plastic through recycling.

Without significant progress on the “less” side, the end result could be no significant decrease in the amount of plastic circulating the globe, while the burden of recycling continues to fall on local communities.

Recycling solves some problems, creates others

Plastic recycling has always been a problematic solution. Although recycling helps conserve virgin resources, such programs involve a web of costs and environmental impacts. That includes the transportation and processing of recycled items, in addition to rendering them into new plastics.

Recycling programs can provide a revenue stream for local governments, but they can also expose local budgets to risk in the global commodities market, as China and other nations clamp down on imported waste.

In addition, local post-consumer plastic recycling programs are notoriously difficult to administer and enforce efficiently. A ramping-up of enforcement efforts can be costly, and it can easily foster resentment.

Considering the hostile environment raised by enforcing standard public health measures in a pandemic, this is a dangerous time to stir the civic pot with tickets and summonses for putting an empty bottle in the wrong bin.

Recycling and the labor shortage

The pandemic has also highlighted a labor shortage issue that has been brewing in the waste management sector for several years.

A recent article in Waste Today suggests that pandemic-related labor shortages are a near term spike in a longer trend. As described by reporter Alex Kamczyc, part of the ongoing problem is the “Amazon effect,” as online shopping and delivery services pull drivers and other workers away from the waste hauling and recycling sector.

The rise in the gig economy, along with new remote employment opportunities, may also be drawing away potential workers from hands-on jobs with inflexible schedules.

Solutions to the recycling labor shortage

Some recycling companies spotted the labor shortage problem long before the pandemic hit, having noted an aging trend in the demographics of a mostly male workforce. The U.S. company Republic Services provides one example of a creative response the problem. Several years ago, the company embarked on a successful campaign to recruit women drivers by reaching out directly to potential applicants and taking steps to ensure a welcoming environment within the company.

Diversity hiring is one solution. Kamczyc also cites the firm Waste Management for adopting new technologies to optimize route planning and improve processing efficiency.

Increasing pay and benefits is another pathway, but those additional costs will be passed along to consumers. Kamczyc draws a concerning picture in which entire districts have curtailed or shut down recycling programs due to labor shortages, in an effort to keep costs down.

Business leaders have made a good start on tackling the plastic pollution problem. However, if a major part of the plan is to increase recycling rates, they need to consider the workforce, focus more attention on the human factor, and develop long term solutions that keep plastic out of the waste stream entirely.

Image credit: Nareeta Martin via Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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