Edition 113, April 2021

VIEW FROM ACADEMIA - The Future of Sustainability and the Recycling of Plastics

By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth, American Public University

Sustainability and recycling are goals many companies and homeowners are trying to meet in 2021. But other words are being bantered about for recycling and sustainability.

For example, trash and recycle are words that mesh with terms like smart technology, e-commerce, home delivery, and reusable plastics bags. Crossing paths with those terms are plans, budgets, the Congressional Recycling Act, the Congressional Plastic Solution Task Force, and the Presidential Plastics Action Plan.

If you collect rainwater for your garden, you are personally contributing to sustainability. So rainwater collection is another term.

The word pollution is used a great deal, along with the unique or special logistics and the supply chain term of the last mile. That is a term used by retail companies to characterize the delivery of online goods, groceries, and medicines to your doorstep.

But what is the last mile in recycling and sustainability?

Retailers and other companies that collect plastics for recycling have had to shift their focus just to maintain their central operational business plans. The concern about plastics pollution is driving the growth of  Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCGs) for food items, for instance.

FMCGs are products that sell quickly at a relatively low cost. These high-demand goods are also called consumer packaged goods, many of which are wrapped in plastic. But there may be a shortage of recycled plastics for such products.

The Different Ways that Plastic Is Being Recycled

Companies that package with plastics see a demand for improved recycling actions, such as those used for food and beverages and water consumption. Two of the packaging industry’s financial and social responsibility eyes are on recycled high-density polyethylene (R-HDPE) and recycled polypropylene (R-PP).

Writing in LiveScience in 2015, Steve Alexander, executive director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, noted that “More than 18,000 stores across the country collect used plastic wraps and bags to be recycled near each store’s main entrance, but not everyone is aware of this opportunity to recycle.” In fact, many grocery chains now use only paper instead of plastic for bagging consumers’ items.

While the programs and action plans vary by company and state, the most common consumer recycling effort lies in that curbside green recycle container.

Artificial Intelligence and Robots Are Helping the Business World with Recycling and Sustainability

Artificial intelligence (AI) or machine intelligence and robots are helping the business world deal with recycling and sustainability. This is not due to more research into this technology as much as it is due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Currently, there is no perfect reverse logistics robot to solve the used plastic bottle problem. But robots and AI systems are being built to improve the assembly line separation of useful or recyclable plastics from those that cannot be recycled.

Robots are also replacing human workers to lift, sort, and transport packages. Robots are a bit more efficient than humans in some of these supply chain operations. And robots and AI systems will be there when this pandemic is over.

The Sustainability Risks for Plastics

A study called “Modern Supply Chain Research and Applications,” published in Emerald Insight, cited six risk factors in the 2021 recycling and sustainability that can be used for the world of plastics:

  • Supply risk: The flow of plastic bottles to be returned or picked up is disturbed, it is not easily handled by humans or machine. 
  • Environmental risk: Companies that are processing plastics cannot control the events around them while trying to do their job. This may be due to a storm over an ocean or river.
  • Process risk:  There may be a breach in the business or financial end of processing the collection of plastics. The banking side of this business may lose interest.
  • Control risk: The company that is processing the collection of plastics or the processing of plastics collected is being misapplied by humans or machines. The employees just do not follow the processes correctly.
  • Mitigation risk: The future collection process or the manufacturing process of plastics is compromised by not having sufficient plastic stock on hand to meet the forecasted and budgeting demand.
  • Demand risk: The actual forecasted production of plastics does not meet the actual demand. There could be a shortage of some processing machine or chemical used in the recycling of plastics.  

Of all these potential risk factors, the most important may be the demand risk because we are still facing a global pandemic. This pandemic and the deadly COVID-19 illness it produces makes it challenging for companies to keep up with the demands of collecting plastics.

The demand disturbance within the plastics recycling supply chain could be attributed to the workers. What happens when a worker gets COVID-19? The result is the processing plant or processing operation has to quarantine the other workers. Even if companies were to forecast the number of products they need to produce or make during the pandemic, the process will constantly change.

The Government’s Plans to Reduce Plastic Pollution

The U.S. generates more than 200 pounds of plastic waste per person each year. President Biden has been given a Presidential Plastics Action Plan to counter the plastics pollution crisis. It was developed by 550 environmental groups that focused on the chemicals used by plastic bottle makers and all plastics that come from fossil fuels.

This action plan is a bold approach to transforming our country for a clean energy future. It is also part of a circular economic plan to do away with today’s plastics footprint in our society. However, from what it appears to say, this action plan is against recycling plastics. It does want to reduce plastic waste, but not by recycling all those plastic bottles floating in oceans and rivers or lying in landfills.

Congressional Plastics Solutions Task Force
H.R.7228 – Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act supports plastics recycling. This was introduced by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

This bill is one of many we expect to see in 2021 to reduce plastic waste. These bills are part of a proposed $85 million budget for 2021.

The goal of this and other coming bills is to turn plastic recycling into law. What these bills are doing is increasing awareness of the Reverse Logistics Association’s (RLA) work.

This bill was introduced on June 16, 2020, by Reps. Haley Stevens (D-MI) and Anthony Gonzales (R-Ohio). Stevens used a key statistic in her argument, that the U.S. only recycles 9% of plastic bottles and other plastic items. The rest is burned, sent to a landfill or is polluting our environment.

Several federal agencies are looking for ways to reduce plastics waste and to bolster its recycling. One such agency is the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is looking to develop standards for the use and recycling of plastics.

The Congressional Stimulus and Funding Bills: Recommendations to Reduce Plastic Pollution was published earlier in February. That report calls plastics pollution a major crisis, citing statistics that show how over the 350 million tons of plastic produced each year in the U.S., 91% is not recycled. In addition, the U.S. exports 225 shipping containers of plastic waste daily.

What Is Curtailing Sustainability?

The coronavirus is a direct cause of the slowdown of sustainable actions by many companies. And the demand for more recycled plastic could lead to a raw and material shortfall or bottleneck this year and into 2022. There are also many challenging issues such as state and federal government interests, the economic crisis for businesses, and the population in general.

But as a final thought, what is the cost of recycling versus the cost of doing nothing?

Originally published on 3/4/2021 https://apuedge.com/the-future-of-sustainability-and-the-recycling-of-plastics/

Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at the university. He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.