There is a big plastic waste challenge right now in the US. It’s much cheaper to just dump plastics or products in a landfill these days. There is not much value right now on plastic sustainability for a circular economy. This is where the US Plastics Pact comes in. They are trying to eliminate these issues by 2025. Join Victoria Meyer as she talks to the Executive Director of the US Plastics Pact, Emily Tipaldo about their goal regarding plastics. Learn how they are focusing on reusability, recyclability, and compostability of plastics. Emily is streamlining things that are in her control so that she can accomplish her mission by 2025. Thank you to our sponsor – AVEVA: https://bit.ly/3uNpmFJ
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Improving Plastic Sustainability And Creating A Circular Economy By 2025 With Emily Tipaldo
During the month of April 2022, we’re focusing on sustainability and talking to a variety of guests that bring in some different angles on sustainability and chemicals. I have the privilege of speaking with Emily Tipaldo, who is the Executive Director of the US Plastics Pact. She has significant experience in plastics, recycling, and materials management at organizations, including the American Chemistry Council and more recycling, before she joined the US Plastics Pact as Executive Director in 2020. Emily, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me.
What is your origin story? What got you interested in plastics and recycling? What brought you to where you are now?
I have a non-traditional career trajectory. I do like talking about it, particularly with students, because if you had asked me several years ago where I thought I would be in 2022, this is not what I would have said by any means. I have learned and relearned a lot of technical things over the years through actual research in osmosis from working with some incredibly smart people in different organizations.
I am a History degree holder and have a Master’s in International Affairs. At the time, when I finished my master’s degree, I thought I might go to law school and I would work for a think tank on international policy wonky political stuff. The world forces happened, Lehman Brothers went under, 2008 happened for me, and things changed.
Through a parent of a friend, I was made aware of trade associations. This is a theme that has carried through to where I am now. I personally feel passionate about the expertise, strengths, and incredible possibility that exists through business. The climate that has existed historically in the US supports innovation and business, enabling it, giving it the freedom to problem solve and to look for innovative solutions to things. That has always intrigued me.
I knew early on that I wanted to policy, but I did not want to be a lobbyist. I wanted some other way to impact policy, and I did not know exactly where, but I saw an opening at the American Chemistry Council in their legal division. I was hired as a paralegal for the association and quickly moved to their regulatory and technical affairs department.It doesn't matter what your political color or affiliation is. Everyone can be motivated by making positive changes. Click To Tweet
There I was able to bring together that sweet spot of working with lots of businesses, but not for any particular one, as well as in an environment where you are looking to impact change through policy, both directly and indirectly. I’m getting to know business acumen, the ways in which different companies operate, what drives them, what motivates them, and lots about their particular supply chains, which was interesting.
For the last five years at the American Chemistry Council, I worked for their plastics division under the wonderful leadership of Mr. Steve Russell. For those who may know Steve, it was incredible working for both him and Keith Christman. I was given the autonomy to lead the packaging team within the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council. I was working with the big companies in North America who provide materials to the plastic packaging market, as well as learning a lot about their supply chains, customers, motivations, demands, why they do things that they do, and why decisions are made the way that they are.
That married together with some of the regulatory experience that I gained when I worked on the regulatory side. I did a lot of work on green chemistry and the green chemistry movement that was happening in the early to mid-2000s, around how do we promote safer chemistries in products that were used and why that was such a big thing. It was around the time that the Toxic Substances Control Act was under reform, or there were lots of discussions going on about toxic reform.
There was a lot of activity within the States. I would carry this over into my plastics work. Through a number of different groups, organizations, and consultants that I worked with as lead for the plastics divisions packaging team, I was introduced to the world of sustainability, specifically for plastics. Marine debris was becoming a big issue at that point. It was picking up steam. I had a great experience while at ACC working with the packaging team to do a natural capital accounting assessment.
If you were to put a true value on all of the different environmental factors that are impacted or involved in making different decisions about, “This is why we are using this packaging for this product.” What would that look like in comparison to if you had made other packaging decisions and tried to put a true cost on it? That was incredibly eye-opening. I had the wonderful experience of working on what I think of as one of the fastest-moving pieces of legislation at the federal level, which was the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, working on language for that and coalition building.
Both from a policy standpoint, looking at what can be done that given agency and business, as well as when businesses want to and are motivated to make change what they are capable of. I was approached about joining the Pact as their executive director. I bring a unique experience to it. After the American Chemistry Council and prior to the Pact, I spent under two years with a small mission-driven consulting firm in the plastic recycling space formerly known as More Recycling, now Stina Inc.
They gather lots of data, do project management in the US and in Europe. I got to know a lot of different players working with them as well. I’m motivated by making positive changes. It does not matter what your political color or affiliation is. We can all agree that we are trying to do better. I was a girl scout, leave the place better than you found it for our children or the next generation. There are lots of opportunities that business has to offer to make some of those big changes that are needed.
It sounds like your early career set you up well to join the US Plastics Pact, which you did in 2020. From my perspective, it seemed like 2020 was a transitional year in sustainability. All of a sudden, it seems like everyone is talking about sustainability, circularity, and all those kinds of topics. Tell us a little bit about US Plastics Pact, what it is and what its mission is.
The US Plastic Pact came together in 2020, but we are part of a broader global network. There are twelve pacts globally. We derive from an effort started by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They have a new plastics economy global commitment that was put together in 2016 or 2017, looking at how do we create globally a circular economy for plastic, specifically plastic packaging.
There are a number of multinationals, other organizations, technology providers, some public sector entities that signed onto that global commitment. They quickly realized, “If we are going to meet a global commitment to creating a circular economy for plastic packaging, we have to do that in the geographies in which we operate, the markets in which we sell the product for the consumer goods companies or retailers.” That is where the idea of the plastics pacts came from. We have a plastic waste challenge. No one company or organization can fully address that on their own, but they need to be part of this broader collaborative effort to overcome the current waste challenge that we have.
The focus, if I’m correct, is on the packaging. It is not looking broadly at plastics and plastics usage. It is about plastic packaging, which as consumers, we are interacting with on a regular basis.
The focus and scope is packaging, not durable goods. That is a whole other can of worms. Similar to other materials that we use, whether it is for packaging or other durable goods. We have issues in terms of reclaiming all sorts of materials. The plastic packaging piece is acutely felt, especially on the packaging side, because we do use a lot of plastic for packaging. It is what consumers touch and feel. There is a sense of, “What are we doing with all of this stuff? Does it have any value in the system?”The US Plastics Pact currently doesn't have value in the system to create a circular economy for most materials, especially plastic. Click To Tweet
That brings up another point in terms of the why of the Pact, which I talk about a lot. It is not something that is easily overcome. I would feel as though I was doing a disservice if I did not mention it is we do not have value in the system to create a circular economy for most materials, but especially for plastic. We are in this dynamic in the US and globally, where all the way upstream, extractive industries and virgin material manufacturers receive lots of government subsidies for oil and gas exploration, tax, credits, benefits.
All the way downstream in the US, it is incredibly cheap to put something in a landfill. What that means is we have this weird economic dynamic of everybody else who is in the middle of the value chain loses out, is in this constant uphill battle to demonstrate value, create value for using recycled intent, investing in more infrastructure to process recycled materials, or any of the things.
Everybody in the middle is not benefiting from those subsidies that exist on either end of the system. That is something that the Pact is looking at in terms of how do we, either from a market-based perspective, create value to build a circular economy or from a policy angle, what needs to happen and what do we need to be supportive of to help create that value for a circular economy for packaging.
That is a challenge that people have widely understood, at least at a corporate level, amongst in association and industry level in terms of the challenges in the lack of the high degree of fragmentation, when you look at the consumer and as it relates to waste disposal, recycling. As a consumer and even somebody, I feel like I’m a well-educated consumer when it comes to plastics, it is difficult to know what can be recycled and what cannot. Even if I stick this in my recycle bin, is it going to be recycled, reprocessed, used effectively, or is it just going into a landfill? That is a huge challenge we have.
The US Plastics Pact has a wide variety of constituents. You call it activators, which cover chemical companies. I know Eastman and ENEOS are part of your activator base, a number of consumer products companies, and other groups. You guys have quite an agenda that you have shared publicly, and yet it is difficult to create alignment. You are touching multiple parts of the value chain. When you think about who your target audience is, as you are trying to create change, who is it? How do you see this change coming about through the US Plastics Pact?
You’ll probably get a different answer depending on who you asked in the group. This could be a consumer goods company or a retailer with private label products. I know there are lots of different considerations or factors from all angles in that. This is something that I challenge our group, our broader pact network, regularly. We call our signatories or our members activators. That is because this is a unique organization.
The signatories are the groups or entities who will meet our stated goals or targets, as we call them. I’m a mere facilitator in all of this. We are different in that. It is not a trade association, some other research project or initiatives that are out there where you pay your dues, you show up to some meetings, and consultants or staff go away, do a research project, come back, present the findings to you, and you do a campaign about it.
This is way different in that everybody who joined the Pact has shown up and signed up to this activity, knowing that they are signing up to work toward four aggressive targets on a 2025 aggressive timeline about reducing certain things, designing for full reusability, recyclability, or composability, helping drive up the national recycling and composting rates, and looking to drive up the use of post-consumer recycled content in plastic packaging.
Those four targets or goals are a solid foundation for us. What I challenge folks with often is in order to help make what is a generational change in driving toward these four targets in such a short amount of time, you have to be introspective and ask yourself, “What is in my control?” For too long, many parts of the plastic packaging value chain have said, “It is the consumer. They are not doing what they are supposed to be doing with it. We do not have the infrastructure structure. The way that our waste contract is not inclusive or including all of the things that you could include in your recycling bin.”
Everybody and their brother have been blamed for the system not working. If you think about who is putting the product onto the market and how much power is held in that decision of how you deliver something to your consumers. Introspectively looking at what is within my control, it may not be easy and cheap, but there are probably lots of things there are that you could check those boxes off. Whatever is not in your control, what can you do to be a part of the supporting solution?
The US Plastics Pact has released a list of problematic or unnecessary materials. There are eleven items on the list. It is a mix of both tangible things that are directly recognized, like cutlery, stirrers, straws, and then intangible. It is on the component aspects. My first question is, how did you guys create that list? Does that list match the list in other countries?
Target ones are the first goal that everybody has signed up to in terms of they will help work for this on a 2025 timeline is to identify what are problematic or unnecessary materials for plastic packaging and to create a list of those things and work to eliminate them by 2025. The idea being that is a couple of things. We won’t be able to recycle our way out of the plastic waste challenge that we are in.Look at what is within your control to be a part of the supporting solution to recycling. Click To Tweet
There are a number of corroborating data sources that have shown that over 2021. The one that most prominently comes to mind is a report called Breaking the Plastic Wave. That was done by Pew Charitable Trusts. They are saying we are not going to recycle our way out of this mess. What can we reduce? That also brings to mind the US EPA’S Waste Hierarchy with reduction at the top.
In an effort to create a circular economy for plastic packaging, not everything is going to fit within that vision of a circular economy for plastics for a number of different reasons. We use the Pact and developed a small team to work on this particular task of identifying what would be considered problematic or unnecessary in definitions and criteria to use and to assess materials. To say whether or not we thought that these things were problematic or unnecessary for our system in the US and do a little bit of hedging or looking what is their trajectory in terms of the 2025 timeline. Do we see these materials, formats, or resins becoming circular over the next couple of years or not, and why?
The small group within the Pact was representative of the value chain. We had balanced voices. We did a lot of work looking at publicly available data sources, using five criteria that we adapted from some of the global Ellen MacArthur Foundation work that had been done. I did look at it through a US lens. We came up with a shortlist.
We have a longer internal list that we are working on, things that met some of the criteria, but not all of them, or other questionable things that other folks within the Pact raised. I would encourage folks if they are interested in that, or there is a corresponding decision tree, more information about the Pact’s scope, definitions, and all that good stuff on our website to check out if folks are interested.
I know you published it at the end of January 2022. What has been the response so far that you guys have seen or that your activator and member companies have seen?
We have been pleased with the response. I personally feel we have landed in a good spot. We did have some opposition from completely polar opposite ends of the plastic packaging value chain or opposite ends from an ideological standpoint on plastic packaging, criticism of polar opposite. We have landed somewhere in the middle. You had asked, is it similar to other lists that are out there? There are some similar things.
That is a testament to there are similar challenges with a number of plastic packaging materials across the globe. It is not necessarily unique to the US. Some of the things are a little bit different than other places. One example would be the perfluorinated compounds, PFOS, that are listed. If you are looking at some of the European pact lists, it is not there because it is already regulated by EFSA and probably reaches as well as some of the different European regulatory frameworks in terms of including performative compounds in food or other types of contact packaging.
There has been a lot of regulatory activity in that space in the US in the last couple of years.
All in all, we feel like we have landed in a good place. It also aligns well with some other efforts that folks are following. There is a group called The Consumer Goods Forum, CGF. It specifically focused on consumer goods companies across the globe and retailers, but just in that sector. They have what they call the golden design rules. Within those golden design rules in an attempt to harmonize some of the plastic packaging formats, there are things that they say you should not be using. Some of these things align with that as well.
I had a conversation with a client who makes packaging materials. This gets to maybe the behavior of the brands and of the people that are buying some of these packaging materials. They recognize the need to make some shifts in material choices. What seems to be the case is when you say, “Are you willing to pay more money?” The answer has been no. “We can go source these raw materials that fit some of these standards around compostability or recycled percentages that you guys have targeted and others have targeted.” The answer is, “Our customers are not asking for it yet. Hang on.”
That seems to be one of the challenges is alignment across the value chain. US Plastics Pact, other consumer products companies, chemical companies, plastics companies have set some strong targets and goals, and yet there is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario at times. It feels like in terms of, “We are ready but are you ready?” I’m not ready to do this change.
As you know, I know certainly, and people across the industry know, you can’t snap your fingers and everything is going to change overnight magically. There has to be a development process. You have to start slowly, and it will ramp up. It is going to have to ramp up quickly. That seems to be a value chain challenge that people recognize the need to make some of these changes have stated the intent to do so but are not ready yet. It is not fully clear when they will be ready to make some of those changes.In order to kind of cut out a lot of the confusion, people need to streamline things. Click To Tweet
It is a value chain challenge because, going back to the point that I made earlier, there is no value. There is no return on investment for making some of these changes now. We do not have value in the system. We are creating a circular economy. Things are happening that are making some of those changes that we are seeing greater value, like activist shareholders and shareholder resolutions for publicly traded companies are making some big companies make different choices, ESG reporting.
There is a proposed rule on the table within the SEC to look at including more SEC metrics around environmental and sustainability goals. It comes back to that value piece. Companies certainly, especially publicly traded ones, all wager to say, “It is risky. It is like stepping out on a limb when you and your leadership are operating within the confines of quarterly returns, and you have lots of competitors.”
It is hard to step out on a limb and either eat costs because you want to use more recycled content and you know for a while that you are not going to break even. Figuring out how you begin to make those changes. That is why you see companies make changes in niche areas or specific brands one at a time. It enables them to pressure test, but we need to provide those value mechanisms for pushing change in a bigger way so that it is more comfortable for folks.
I get nervous. I do not know if any of your readers or if you follow this, but something that sticks out to me and around this value creation piece is in 2021, to known big French-based consumer goods company, people know them, their chief executives and the chairman at the time were ousted by activist shareholders when he had a driven environmental and social effort within the company to drive results on ESG metrics across their different portfolios and markets.
In the midst of trying to push that within the company, I know from other areas where the brass tacks come into play where in certain markets, Danone’s procurement folks, those who are looking at what materials are we using and for our packaging or their performance was directly tied to their sustainability goals. It is not just about driving down to the lowest cost option to get the performance that we need. It is about, “Are we also meeting these other metrics?” That changed their decision-making process. Whereas in other parts of the world, the procurement team’s performance was not tied to sustainability. Therefore, the lowest price is going to win every time for the material.
In some ways, it ties into my next question, which is around the consumer. It seems like consumer education is a necessary part of the agenda. At times, some of the “sustainable choices, sustainable packaging” is a rich person opportunity. If I’m going to go buy high-end cosmetics or skincare, of course, I expect it to be more sustainable. I’m willing to pay the extra money for the packaging because I’m already paying the extra money for the packaging. When I think about taking it down across all people, everybody across the US and across the globe is not willing to pay more.
When they look at a product on the shelf and say, “Product A is from one of these activators on your list. It’s got a high level of post-consumer recycled material or some other standard, but I have got this cheap and cheerful product that seems to do the same thing. It is getting imported in from someplace else that has different standards.”
Some segments of consumers know, but a large segment does not. What is the agenda? Are you guys participating in this in terms of the changing consumer behaviors, educating consumers on this? We can make all this great progress from a US perspective across the value chain, but if the consumers do not recognize it and they have a choice from a component of the value chain that is not following the same standards, they may make that choice. Do you see that? It is a bit of a dilemma that a lot of companies face. I’m not sure that anyone truly knows how to address it, but what are you guys talking about? What do you see about how to address that?
Our priorities within the Pact are looking at reduction, reuse, and recycling. To a lesser extent, composting and compostability. On the reuse piece, I know what you are raising about. Is it accessible to all socioeconomic levels and demographics or not is real and something that companies are working through, because there are a couple of reuse platforms that exist? Some are cost-prohibitive.
There are others out there that have been created some of the more refill models to be more accessible. It is more about you refilling your package and buying the amount of product that you want and need at any given time. That is the conversation that is happening there. The one around consumers is an interesting one. They are not our primary audience, but we do have a couple of activities and things that we have outlined in our roadmaps that we put together around consumers.
We are on such a short timeline with our goals and targets. We know we have to work with other existing efforts and are not looking to duplicate anything. There is a lot of good work going on with the recycling partnership in the US, some other organizations, Sustainable Packaging Coalition, and Closed Loop Partners.
I’m probably leaving out some, but that touches on consumer pieces and a better understanding of consumer education. A lot of consumer goods companies have tons of marketing data. We are trying to see, in a pre-competitive way, what we can delve into to better understand. It is a twofold question. Whereas we are looking to work with others to better understand and communicate with consumers, we are looking more from our little bit more upstream vantage point of, “What is within our control to simplify this?”
To think that we can continue to do the same things that we are doing and if we only educated the people better. People need things to be as simple as humanly possible. That may mean simplifying the types of packaging that are put onto the market. That gets back to like, “What is the vision for the circular economy? What fits into that? What does not?”
That is one question, or simplifying the technology from a material recovery facility standpoint and reprocessing infrastructure, either simplifying or harmonizing that infrastructure. Generally speaking, across the board and in the US, you know that this particular package will be handled properly when you put it in your recycling bin because there is a standard level of capability to handle, sort, collect, and so on.
Some of that stuff needs simplification. Harmonization is a tough word for the US. I mean it in the most positive way. In order to cut out a lot of the confusion, we need to streamline things, whether it is a product and package design or the infrastructure that we have. I do not think it is fair to put it all on product design but also on the infrastructure.
Your point is controlling the things that you can control is critical. Taking action on the things that you can is critical because it is a complex, multifaceted topic and issue that needs a wide variety of groups, companies, and individuals to take part. That is well done. As we wrap this up, Emily, what is next for the US Plastics Pact? You are on an ambitious agenda. Where do you see the rest of 2022 playing out?
We have lots of tasks and deliverables. If folks are interested in looking at what is on our agenda, I do encourage everyone to take a look at our Roadmap to 2025, which is on our website. We released that in June 2021. We have these four targets. What does that mean over the next few years in terms of anticipated outcomes, associated tactics, and activities?
In 2022, we have done some work around target three, which is the focus on bolstering the national recycling rate. What things can we, as the US Pact, do to have an impact on the national recycling rate. We are looking at some modeling around if we are going to achieve a 30% by weight average of post-consumer recycled content in plastic packaging. That is for our little cohort within the Pact, which we think now is 5.6 million tons of material. Thirty percent of that being PCR, like, “What does that mean in terms of formats, the required volumes of that, and the challenge of food contact versus non-food contact?”
Emily, thank you so much for joining us. It has been a great conversation. There is a whole lot of depth and passion I know around this. I appreciate you sharing that with us.
Thanks so much for having me. I hope everyone gives our website a look. Thank you.
Thank you, everyone, for joining us and reading. Keep sharing, following, liking, and reading more great episodes. Thank you so much.
- US Plastics Pact
- Breaking the Plastic Wave
- Waste Hierarchy
- The Consumer Goods Forum
- Roadmap to 2025
About Emily Tipaldo
Executive Director with more than a decade of experience with plastics, recycling, and materials management, Emily brings her skills of stakeholder engagement, industry expertise, and passion for reducing climate change to the U.S. Plastics Pact. The U.S. Plastics Pact is a solutions driven consortium with more than 100 diverse businesses and organizations across the plastics value chain working to rethink the way we design, use, and reuse plastics, to create a path toward a circular economy for plastic in the United States. Through previous work with the research and consulting company MORE Recycling and the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council, Emily built incredible knowledge and value chain connections that support her work today as Executive Director of the U.S. Plastics Pact.
Why I Care About the Circular Economy
“As a mom, and a sustainability professional, I constantly battle with myself over convenience and responsible material and resource use. I think often about how we might reframe or modify how we measure prosperity, to be less focused on production and consumption, and more focused on value creation. As a parent I worry about my little ones’ futures and view the realization of a circular economy as a critical step to preserving our environment.”
Personal Passions and Interests
When not thinking about the U.S. Plastics Pact, Emily and her family can be found chasing little ones on the Charleston, South Carolina, beaches.
Co-Author: Resource Recycling – Unlocking the plastic paradox
Co-Author: Systems analysis for PET and olefin polymers in a circular economy
GreenBlue Blog: Sustainable Materials Management and Natural Capital Valuation
Award Recipient: 2017 Edison Awards: Women Behind Innovation
Award Recipient: Plastics News Rising Star 2015
Master’s Degree in International Relations from University of Westminster
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