In this episode, Joshua Baca, Vice President of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division, shares how he got to where he is now, from working in politics to ending up with ACC. He believes that what he is doing now is fruitful, not just for him but for all of us in this society. He shares their advocacy strategies to help people better understand plastics’ advantages in key markets such as automotive, building and construction, packaging, and innovations that are helping address some of our world’s greatest sustainability challenges. They aim to have a hundred percent of plastic packaging to be recyclable by the year 2040. What are they doing, and how can they achieve this ultimate goal? Listen and find out!
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Putting Sustainability At The Heart Of ACC’s Plastics Division With Joshua Baca
I am speaking with Joshua Baca, who is Vice President of ACC’s Plastics Division, where he oversees strategic programs to advance a science-based policy agenda, national outreach and sustainability initiatives on behalf of America’s leading plastics makers. He previously led public affairs for the American Beverage Association. He got his start on Capitol Hill working for former US Representative Heather Wilson and on Senator Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Joshua, welcome to the show.
Victoria, thank you so much for having me. It’s long overdue. I’m excited to be on.
I’m excited to have you here. Tell us a little bit about you. How did you go from politics to chemistry?
It’s a bizarre story. I do somewhat joke about this with a lot of my colleagues that chemistry, at least in high school, was not my strong suit. I spent all of my career in government and politics. Where it started was when I was about sixteen years old, I had a unique opportunity where I moved to Washington DC for an entire semester and served as a US Senate page. I was a Senate page for Senator Jeff Bingaman who’s a former senator from New Mexico. All of that happened by accident. You could do a whole other episode on that but it was that moment that got me into politics. I’m a sixteen-year-old living in the nation’s capital and going to a great school. I had some amazing opportunities that were forwarded to me.
From there, my career took off. I went to college and studied all the political stuff, government, political science and economics. I got another lucky break when I was in college and got a scholarship to move to DC to be an intern for former Congresswoman Heather Wilson from New Mexico. Long story short, I did a good enough job. She ended up keeping me.
I worked on Capitol Hill for several years and had a great experience learning about the policy but I liked the politics a whole lot more. I got into working on her political campaigns in 2006. She was in one of the tightest races in the country. We won by about 800 votes. It was quite a race. She ran successfully for the Senate a few years later. It gave me the bug. I made a career out of it, doing a lot of work in the consulting side and government politics, issue advocacy and public affairs.
I went to work for Senator Mitt Romney in a presidential campaign in 2012 and came back. After that, I honed in on my ability to lead a large issue advocacy campaign. That’s how I ended up with the American Beverage Association, bringing together this new and changing world of advocacy where traditional government relations, public affairs and modern communications intersect. They’re all rooted in some substance-based agenda. A lot of organizations in the past used to be able to say no to things as a means to win. That world has pretty much dramatically changed. That’s how I got to ACC, working with them on some projects at ABA and got the recruitment. It’s been a wild run since then.
It’s a foreign world for many of us but neat, especially when we think about the work that ACC does on behalf of the industry. Most of our readers are familiar with the ACC but can you explain a little bit about it for those folks that maybe don’t know?You're never going to get 100% of what you want, but you can get 100% of what you don't want if you're not stepping forward and leading. Click To Tweet
First off, ACC is a fantastic organization. I often joke sometimes with some of my friends and my colleagues that there was a moment in time when I was debating on whether or not I should take the job when the job was offered to me. If I had one regret, it’s almost looking back that I almost didn’t take it. I say that because the organization is great.
It’s got great member companies, a level of engagement that I’ve never seen before from all levels, including the highest level, a fantastic senior leadership team that I get to be a part of that helps run the organization daily and intellectually challenging issues. These are complex things. The biggest learning curve for me has been I’m more of a black and white guy and everything is gray and everybody has a different interpretation of that shade of gray.
What we do at ACC is we’re an advocacy organization. We represent the chemical manufacturers, the resin suppliers and all of the work that’s associated with making sure that the business of chemistry is several billions of dollars. We represent some of the leading companies in the space who are responsible for making modern life possible. The companies like Dow to Celanese to other companies who’ve never even heard of maybe like Covestro or the average consumer never has heard of. They all have something in common, which is what jazzes me up about the work that we’re doing. They’re all committed to solving some big problem.
They’re doing it in sustainability, in particular and circularity. They’re doing it with how they engage and the types of people that were employed within their companies. What’s cool is that I got to be at the intersection of all of this. We’re in the process of an entire industry that’s going through a massive state of transition. You don’t get to say that often. I hope I look back in many years and can point to that. I was a key enabler part of that transition.
It is a huge inflection point for the industry. The industry of the future is going to be different from where we’re at. We do need organizations like ACC to help create the advocacy but also some commonality across companies that are otherwise hard to get. Let’s maybe talk a little bit about the strategic pillars. Certainly, for groups like ACC and other industry groups, it tends to revolve around the key strategic pillars for the entity and its member companies. What is the big focus for ACC and the Plastics Division?
Let me start with ACC because it sets nicely up what we’re doing in the Plastics Division. ACC has a pretty big and bold agenda and strategy that they’re working on. It is rooted in sustainability is how I would think about it. It’s five core pillars. One is air, the issue of air and how we address that component from a climate perspective. It’s important. The second one is product safety and implementation like laws that have passed like the TSCA Reform Legislation, for instance. We’re working on issues that deal with product safety. That’s another core pillar of ours.
Circularity is key to what we’re doing. That’s probably where I spend 80% of my time. Another initiative that probably a lot of people are beginning to learn more about us is our Future of STEM Scholars Initiative, FOSSI. We’re partnering with historically Black colleges and universities to change the workforce in our companies and investing in people who want to study STEM who are focused on engineering, science and chemistry.
We have a realization within our industry that we need more of those people from those communities to be studying those things. We view it as a key pillar for us in opening the doors to bring it in and ushering an entirely new generation of leaders within our companies. That sets up nicely with what we do within the Plastics Division, which is that fourth pillar. Also, circularity is a pillar of sustainability.
Within the division, our work is rooted in sustainability. It is the intellectual foundation that helps us formulate our advocacy strategies and communication strategies. Part of that also is advancing an agenda that’s focused on achieving ambitious goals that companies had put out. One of the goals that we have spent a lot of our time on is ensuring that 100% of our plastic packaging will be recyclable by 2040. That’s a big ambitious goal. It’s hard.
You can’t get there by taking small steps. You’ve got to take big steps to get there. One of the things that we do is think about how to achieve those goals. Part of that is private sector investment. Our companies have invested well over $8 billion in the last few years and trying to accelerate circularity. Another pillar of that is innovation and bringing new technologies to the market like advanced recycling. Another component is collaboration with the value chain and making sure that we are working towards achieving those similar goals. If you want to achieve that 2040 goal, it’s going to require a value chain collaboration and things like improving access, end markets and economics and probably new technology on how we sort and process some new material.
All of that formulates our advocacy strategy. That advocacy strategy is both at the federal level, the state level and the international level. The federal level is probably where we’ve put forth our most recent ambitious proposal, which we call Five Actions for Sustainable Change. What it was is a model to help transition America from an economy that’s largely been linear to one that is much more circular and putting our industry at the center of that, using more recycled plastic and packaging by 2030, a 30% national standard.
It’s ensuring that things like advanced recycling count are in this broad debate around circularity. It’s improving standards and developing standards to help us recycle more material. It’s studying the impact of GHG emissions and supporting producer responsibility systems to help build more recycling infrastructure.
Those are some big, bold policies that we’re advocating for. It’s important because it is interconnected with both international and state. At the state level, we have been very active in ensuring that advanced recycling towns are regulated appropriately. On the international level, there is a debate going on in the context of the UNEA-5.2 negotiations on what we should do to tackle waste. We think that our plan and frankly the US could serve as a model for that and set the tone on how we address the issue of circularity.
I may come from that old school mentality where American leadership to me is still critical. I say that because you go back to the first part of my story where I got an opportunity. I’m a kid from a small town in New Mexico with 15,000 people who live in my community. Most people probably never left that area to have an opportunity to go through all the things I’ve been through in my life and see those things regarding American leadership. I have lived the American Dream. It may sound cheesy when you say America can be the model but it should be. Whether it’s on circularity or mobility or not, that’s an important piece for the broad debate on these issues going on around the world.
That’s interesting because when you talk about, for instance, product safety and tasks, one of the things that come to mind is reaching the European standards that came in that fundamentally influenced companies around the globe. The global world that we’re in is interesting in terms of who gets to take a leadership position and set the standards in how you create the collaboration across industry groups but also that leadership opportunity.
In the context of these debates, I said to anybody who listened to me, “You’re never going to get 100% of what you want but you can get 100% of what you don’t want if you’re not stepping forward and leading.” That’s where the world of advocacy in particular gets muddy. I grew up in an era where in the issue and advocacy world, you would say yes or no to things and then move on and that’s how you dispatch.It's important to be transparent that businesses are in the business of making a profit, but they can also make a profit and do something good for the environment. Click To Tweet
Now, issues have become much more complicated. For us, we don’t have the luxury to say no. We have to say yes because the policies that we want to put forth are, 1) Business certainty and, 2) Good economics. The issue of circularity is an entirely new business model for many of our companies. You can do both of those things and do something good for the environment. That’s a good thing. It’s important to be transparent that businesses are in the business of making a profit but they can also make a profit and do something good for the environment. It could be a win-win for everybody.
There’s a lot of business and money to be made. At the end of the day, when I talk to different folks about sustainability and circularity, one of the things they come back to is there’s a certain amount that sustainability and circularity are inherent in the chemical industry. When you look at the entirety of the value chain, some of the products were created because it’s like, “There’s a waste stream that shouldn’t be a waste stream. Let’s figure out how to turn it into something valuable and useful.” We’re at a different point where we’re trying to figure out, especially with plastics, which is the hot topic of how we make them more recyclable with advanced recycling and other technologies to make them more useful long-term for the future.
One of the things that strike me is the challenge of creating that alignment within member companies and also when you go out and talk to constituent groups and governments. You mentioned advanced recycling. I’ve seen a lot of press releases and notes in the news about different states approving advanced recycling. There are a lot of moving pieces. How do you create that alignment and coalition building?
That’s what I spent all my days doing, both alignment within our companies and other stakeholders. From the company side, I like to take that one first because I don’t always think our companies get the credit that they deserve. I don’t even say that in the context of my job – it is to be their chief advocate and help advance their agenda but they’re doing some pretty groundbreaking stuff. There’s a waste stream and they’re turning it into something valuable with innovation. We often think of innovation as the iPhone for instance but innovation comes in multiple forms. Perhaps that waste stream was identified in a new material that’s going into this iPhone. Most consumers don’t know that.
What I do think first thing is that maybe misunderstood on where they’re going and the hard work you’re doing. I’m very proud of their work. I say that because we have had brought a line. We’ve been clear on our agenda, goals and aspirations. We’ve also been clear in acknowledging that we’re not 100% there. Getting to 100% is tough. If we don’t try, we’re not going to make any progress. We’re working through it. We’re not where we want to be but I’m pretty confident we’re on the right path to where we want to go. In regards to broader alignment with stakeholders, internally, one of our core values is alignment with the value chain. That’s a critical piece for us.
Alignment with the value chain means a whole lot of different things to a whole lot of different people. What it means in the simplest terms is that we all sing off the same song sheet and work towards the same goals. The value chain has responsibilities like if you’re a brand company and how you market your materials. The resin suppliers and the converters have a responsibility to make sure that the products they make are more recyclable. There is a key role for collaboration with local communities and stakeholders who are responsible for improving recycling access. There’s an entirely new market for the demand for recycled material, largely made by consumer brand companies.
When you have a strong demand like that, it opens up an opportunity for new market developments to your thing that was something that was viewed as waste that is then viewed as a valuable feedstock. When we think about the role of advanced recycling, in particular, that’s essentially what you’ve done. You hit the nail on the head so well on that.
Our companies see waste in the environment. They have identified that it could be a valuable piece of feedstock that they can turn into to make new material. When we think about the role of advanced recycling, it’s important for your readers to know that we think advanced recycling is very complementary to mechanical recycling. Based on market dynamics, if something can be mechanically recycled, it probably should. PET bottles, for instance, and milk jugs are things that are pretty commonly mechanically recycled. If you see the data, there is still tremendous room for growth in some of those areas.
What we need to get at when we start thinking about advanced recycling is how do you collect, sort and process everything that’s not a bottle like your toothpaste tubs, the fact that your granola crunch came in, the wrap around your blueberries, the container that your food came in from the local restaurant or your dry cleaning wrap? Those are the things that we need to figure out. That is all valuable feedstock. That’s where we’re trying to solve the puzzle here. If we can get to a point where we can collect, sort and process everything that’s not a bottle, you’re going to have achieved the goals that we’ve outlined.
To do that, we need to think about how we continue to improve access and how we educate people about what can go in the bin. If we continue to evolve that technology, we could take more of that material in the bin. That gives us the incentives to help waste management companies and material recovery facilities. There are even new ideas like a consortium of companies called cyclic aggregating feedstocks. Those are all opportunities that create new pathways to achieve our goals. It’s hard when I went back to that point that it’s not black and white and everything is gray. If you see everything I told you there, it’s all dependent upon each other.
If we don’t adopt the mindset of collaboration, which is what we have, we’re never going to be at the goals that we want to be. It is also important to recognize that there will be some people who don’t want to support our goals because they think plastics are inherently bad. I disagree with that. For the next generation of mobility, for instance, we work with all of the automotive companies to supply the material that lightweight their cars, protects the electric batteries that they make and makes those cars go further and longer, the home installations that make your buildings more energy-efficient and the modern pipe that delivers water to communities. There are a variety of applications that plastic goes into. It’s easy to maybe think about it in the context that plastic is just a straw. It’s more than straw. It’s a pretty amazing material that is doing a whole lot of things and applications.
It’s a huge educational challenge for consumers. I have those conversations with individuals as well. I talk about, for instance, the lightweight thing, as it relates to. I like to use the example of when the airlines switched from glass bottles to plastic bottles for the booze on the plane. How much fuel did they save? They did it because it was a significant fuel saving. It’s like, “I never thought about that.” Think about it and all the other places. There’s still a real need to continue to educate consumers. The challenge is there are way more consumers than companies sitting on this side of the table that we’re trying to educate. It’s hard to keep up with the narrative sometimes and it’s one of the big challenges.
You think about car safety. Airbags are not made out of metal or glass and there’s a reason for that. I say those comments jokingly but it’s also seriously because plastic is a unique material. There’s no doubt about it. It’s a great innovation that much like many things that I said sometimes is misunderstood and there’s a lack of education and awareness of what it means. There’s also a valuable role for all other materials.
We think our industry is the best. We think plastics are better from a GHG perspective because the research shows it. Part of the beauty of the systems that we work in is they have a free-market approach. The companies that innovate and lead in the industry that put forth cutting-edge solutions are often those who went out. Essentially, how we view our job at ACC is making sure that there is a level playing field to compete where we’re not picking winners and losers and companies have the ability to compete in the marketplace. That fosters a race for innovation to be the best. That’s a good thing.
We talked about creating, frankly, a reason for people to recycle and for their waste management companies to be collecting this variety of different plastic waste streams, which we’ll focus on, to bring in mechanical recycling and advanced recycling. What do you think is the most logical way to do this? There’s always a debate around putting up a bottle fee. What’s the point of view in terms of how do we create those economic incentives to help the system develop?
First off, any system that collects more material is a system that we’re for. There are a variety of systems that have been proposed. There are commonly proposed systems called Extended Producer Responsibility. There is a bottle deposit return system. I’m familiar with both of those, having worked both in the chemical industry and the beverage industry.Until you improve the system, it's going to be hard to educate them that the system works. Click To Tweet
What’s most important is that not all of those systems are created the same. When we think about Extended Producer Responsibility, we don’t like the E part. That part implies something like a one size fits all takeover of the entire waste system. That’s not our recommended approach. We call it a producer responsibility system because producers put feeds into the system via feeds that are applied to their packaging through a needs-based assessment. That money is reinvested back into the system to build more access to infrastructure and education.
In a producer responsibility system, our number one principle is that it must reinvest the money back into the system to continue to support infrastructure, build new infrastructure and ultimately achieve the circularity goals that we want. That is something we strongly support. On the bottle deposit system, for instance, you could see real-world examples of how this has not worked out. You have states like New York and Connecticut that have robust bottle deposit systems but have low rates of recycling or poor infrastructure or other elements because they haven’t invested the money back into the system.
You have politicians who robbed the bank to fund the general fund, which was not the intent of developing that system. In my view, it’s understandable why businesses might be skeptical of going down a path and creating these systems because of what has happened in the past but we got to start fresh and put the best solution forward. If they get more material into the system that incentivizes the consumer to do so and reinvest that money back into society, it’s probably a good system.
What do you see as the biggest barrier to advancing the agenda?
Access to feedstock is the technical answer if you want to continue to scale and grow advanced recycling. Frankly, if you want to continue to scale and grow mechanical recycling, achieve the ambitious circularity goals that we have put out, use more recycled material in plastic packaging and be more circular, then you need more feedstock. That’s it.
Our companies have innovated on the technology side so you have access to that feedstock. It goes back to: do we collect more of this material? That’s key. From a broader philosophical perspective, we’re at a point where there has been a lack of trust sometimes in the system. I outlined some of those reasons. There’s uncertainty in the market with erroneous regulations that may seek the ban, regulate or encourage the use of materials that maybe don’t have a better carbon footprint.
If you take those things, you got to break those barriers. For us to get more feedstock in the system, we must think about things that we do differently. It probably requires a secondary dissertation to get your films and pouches. We have bottle deposit systems where there’s a fee applied to a returned bottle. Maybe there’s a way to do that for other materials and provide some incentive there to do something similar so that it’s more than a bottle. These are all models that need to be explored. Everyone in the value chain is ambitiously working to try to find these solutions.
At the end of the day, you have to change consumer behavior. It always astonishes me, the things that people are and are not willing to do, even the easily recycled products. Consumers choose not to do that.
I have a member of the company that reminds me of this all the time. He’s like, “We can innovate but we cannot recycle trash.” That means that we need better systems to sort the material from the trash. That’s an important observation but there’s a broad point here. It’s probably not going to be a one size fits all solution. It’s going to be all of these things in some regard. If you improve the systems, that gives you the opportunity to better advocate for the consumer. The consumer probably lacks confidence that if they put something in the bin, it gets recycled. Until you improve the system, it’s going to be hard to educate them that the system works.
What’s next on your agenda? What do you see coming up for the rest of 2022?
We have a couple of things that we’re focused on. The first thing is we want to make sure that our federal proposal gets introduced in Congress with a high priority for us and our members. These are marathons and not sprints. The introduction of a bill might seem like small potatoes but you might also remember that most things don’t get done in Congress. That’s a big important milestone.
The second thing is we want to begin and see successful negotiations around the UNEA-5 treaties and make sure that we develop an approach that allows country by country to implement systems that work for their country. Waste management capacity in Indonesia, for instance, is different from the waste management capacity in Indiana. We need to make sure that the one size fits all approach doesn’t work.
The third thing is we need to make sure that states continue to lead on advanced recycling. Eighteen states have passed laws that regulate advanced recycling as a manufacturing process, as opposed to a waste incineration process. I hope that we are at 22, 23, 24 and 25 by the end of 2022. That would be important. More broadly, there’s a lot of work happening in the implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure law. Some of the things going on there impact our industry. We want to see it successfully implemented. That’s a big priority for us as well too.
There’s a lot of debate around transportation and mobility in the era of high gas prices and how you accelerate those supply chains. We’re going to be critical in that debate as well too. There’s no shortage of things going on. I’d probably give you twenty more examples but those are probably the most significant ones that we’re focused on.
Joshua, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciated getting a chance to talk with you on these topics. They’re near and dear to many people’s hearts that are reading. Thank you for joining us on the show.
Thank you so much for having me, Victoria. I enjoyed it very much.
Thanks for reading, everyone. We will talk to you again in the next episode.
About Joshua Baca
As Vice President of ACC’s Plastics Division, Joshua oversees strategic programs to advance a science-based policy agenda, national outreach, and sustainability initiatives on behalf of America’s leading plastics makers. He encourages a better understanding of plastics’ advantages in key markets, such as automotive, building and construction, and packaging, and innovations that are helping to address some of our world’s greatest sustainability challenges.
Joshua also leads industry initiatives and fosters multi-stakeholder dialogue around helping to end plastic waste by creating a more circular economy. He previously led public affairs at the American Beverage Association (ABA), where he oversaw the launch of a new plastics sustainability initiative and helped advance community-based recycling projects.
Prior to joining ABA, Joshua served as a managing director at Marathon Strategies and senior vice president at DDC Public Affairs. In both capacities, Joshua directed strategy and implementation of multi-channel issue advocacy and public affairs campaigns on behalf of Fortune 100 companies and leading trade associations. In 2018, Joshua led the defeat of the Border Adjustment Tax on behalf of the retail industry, which was recognized as PR Week’s 2018 global crisis campaign of the year.
He began his career working on Capitol Hill for former U.S. Representative Heather Wilson and as the National Coalitions Director for U.S. Senator Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Joshua has a Master of Arts in Government and Political Communications from The Johns Hopkins University and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Texas Tech University.
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