Reflections on the latest Plastic Recycling Conference

After many years without attending a plastic event, I decided to go to the latest Plastic Recycling Conference last week, in DC.

Here I am with my shampoo bar in the bag, wearing comfortable Rothys and carrying around a reusable water bottle. Traveling light, very light.

I got there a bit skeptical, afraid to spend time (and money) hearing the traditional plastic industry speech about how good plastics are and how big of an environmental impact they’re making with tiny little tricks. What I saw was a bit of that, yes, but also some good and interesting news. After many years wearing the plastic industry hat, I can tell my optics have changed now that I’m wearing the plastic-waste expert hat.

Below is a consolidated list of what I was excited to see and what I was not actually.

Exciting News

  • Activists and trade association groups sitting at the same panel and finding (some) common ground. At the end of the day, all actors need to be open to exchanging ideas and collaborating. Seeing such opposites sides like the pro-plastic group agree, to some extent, with Greenpeace plastics campaigner was encouraging. Simple things like “plastic pollution is real” and “the bottle bill is a good mechanism to capture more plastic” go a long way.
  • To hear from a plastic industry veteran that virgin plastic production is slated to decrease.
  • A petrochemical company partnering with a client to collect, sort, process and sell plastics with up to 70% of recycled content. Supply of recycled material has been an issue and partnerships like that are more than necessary (especially when the producer is involved).
  • Another petrochemical company investing in integration through (chemical) recycling, so they make new feedstock out of waste and produce plastic with around 30% lower emissions. Chemical recycling has been a controversial subject because it usually produces fuels, like diesel, that will be burned afterwards. The fact that this company’s producing new plastic out of waste, makes it less pollutant and more circular.
  • Some brand-owners are banning additives like pigments, carbon black (because you can’t recycle colored packaging), and things that are oxo-biodegradable (read that as toxic substances + microplastics). It was encouraging to see some examples already in the market. 
  • A courageous lady saying we don’t have time to fix all the recycling hustles and should focus on reusable systems instead.
  • A big brand-owner building recycling infrastructure in underdeveloped countries so their products don’t end up in the in the landfill, or in some places, the streets and waterways.
  • A large waste management company committing to integrating recycling and collection-sortation so they can recycle most of what they collect. Traditionally, waste management companies don’t recycle much but this company has ambitious plans to change this trend.
  • Another courageous lady talking about concerns around toxic chemicals and contamination in plastic recycling. Many additives and inks used in plastic formulations are toxic and mixing everything together to make a new item is not a good solution.

Deceptive / More of the Same

  • Industry groups and petrochemicals blaming municipalities for not collecting and sorting material and consumers for littering.
  • Over 1,000 kta (KiloTons a year) new capacity of virgin PP (#5 plastic; polypropylene) coming up in 2022.
  • Over 2,500 kta new capacity of virgin PE (plastics #2 and #4; polyethylene) coming up in 2022.
  • A big pollutant oil & gas company saying their current recycling pilot plant generates more emissions than the virgin plastic production. Come on, you spend over $1Bi in research every year, can you do better and find a good solution to the waste you generate?
  • A packaging maker saying PET (plastic #1; your water bottle) mechanical recycling is working very well. Explanation note: data says 30% of PET is recycled in the US today, meaning 70% goes to the landfill. Of course this is FAR from what the planet needs.
  • An industry veteran saying ocean pollution is the consumer's fault because they are not well educated and litter.
  • Pricing experts discussing plastic prices without considering the recycled plastic market at all. When the audience asked, they said “it’s too little to make an impact today and is not going to affect the strong plastic industry in the short-term at least”.

And what about the conference itself? Walking around the exhibition center I saw A LOT of wasteful and cheap swags and giveaways that I was so delighted to refuse! Pens, plastic bracelets, keychains, stickers, you name it. A vendor wanted to give me a towel made of recycled PET and I politely said “no thanks, I don’t need a new towel”. He didn’t understand and insisted again. He was clearly shocked and I was probably labeled as the weirdo of the show. That sends a clear message of what “sustainability” means to most of the companies there. 

When it goes to food packaging, it was not too bad. Coffee break had juices with single use plastic cups but real plates and cutlery. Cocktails in the trade show were in reusable plastic or glass, and the nicest surprise was lunch with 100% reusable (real plates, glass cups, metal cutlery and cloth napkins).

The event had over 1,000 attendees and I saw (and counted) 5 people carrying reusable bottles around… The mentality and lifestyle are very different among the industry folks, but I came back home with a “cautiously” optimistic feeling, hoping that more common ground will be found as we keep the discussion on.


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