How will the US Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act affect coffee businesses?

Tom Elliot
September 15, 2021
us plastic waste reduction and recycling act

In recent years, plastic waste has grown at a terrifying rate. Data from the United Nations indicates that five trillion single-use plastic bags are thrown away each year, while a million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute.

But this is just the tip of a plastic iceberg – a staggering 8.3 billion tons of plastic are thought to have been produced throughout history, with 6.3 billion of it ending up as non-recyclable waste.

In response, the United States Congress has introduced the US Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act, a bill that looks set to change the landscape of US plastic production and waste management forever.

Aimed at reducing the environmental impact of plastic production and developing a more competitive recycling sector, the act is expected to have significant consequences for companies in America and beyond.

For coffee roasters, who have long relied on plastic for everything from stirrers and takeaway cups, to cupping spoons and pouches, this could have considerable implications for their businesses should they fail to adhere to the act.

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us plastic waste reduction and recycling act
The act was introduced in June 2019

What is the US Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act?

The need for the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act first became apparent in 2018, following a Chinese government ban on the import of foreign recyclables.

Up to that point, the US had relied on sending most of its recycling to China: over the previous 20 years, it had sold and shipped over 100 million metric tons of recyclable plastics.

As a result, there were considerable shortfalls in the country’s own recycling infrastructure that were exposed once the ban came into effect.

Ill-equipped to handle their plastic waste domestically, companies began burning their recyclable materials or sending them to landfills. In total, only 9% of the country’s total waste was being recycled.

Congresswoman Hayley Stevens introduced the act in June 2019 after insisting the US could “no longer deny that it was facing a plastic waste crisis”. The aim, she said, was to “help develop a world-leading US industry in advanced recycling technologies.”

In its current form, the act has four key objectives:

– To encourage the development of a world-leading research program into biodegradable materials, bioplastics, and recycling.
– To create public-private partnerships between government bodies and companies that produce or manage plastic.
– To create an integrated, federally funded research program for developing plastic recycling systems.
– To foster international collaboration, seeking a co-ordinated, global response to the current plastic crisis.

The act echoes similar pieces of green legislation, such as the EU Directive on Single-Use Plastics. This directive was introduced in 2019 and aims to find an international approach to eradicating ten of the most common single-use plastic products.

In general, these international policies are signs of the overall trend towards more sustainable practices. That trend is already affecting businesses around the world and looks set to have a significant impact on companies in the coffee industry.

compostable takeaway coffee cup
Failing to adopt more sustainable packaging could hit a coffee business’ sales

How could the act affect coffee businesses?

The global coffee industry plays a significant role in the production of plastic waste.

Recent estimates indicate that as many as 16 billion disposable coffee cups are used each year, while a study of Nespresso-style pods found that 29,000 out of the 39,000 pods produced every minute end up in landfill.

The introduction of the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act offers coffee companies an opportunity to change these worrying statistics.

In general, the role of the act is to incentivise rather than to punish: it does not currently list sanctions for companies that produce or use plastics.

Rather, it focuses on allocating funds for public-private partnerships and offering benefits to companies that transition to more sustainable models.

Although some organisations such as Greenpeace don’t feel this goes far enough, there are promising upsides to switching to more sustainable materials.

A report released in 2018 found that the majority of Americans say that the design of a product’s packaging influences their decision to purchase it. Almost 90% of people surveyed in the report stated that they preferred packaging made of paper or cardboard because they found it easier to recycle.

As such, coffee roasters may find their customers increasingly turn away from them should they stick with plastic products. These include pouches, stirrers, and takeaway cups.

Furthermore, while the measures do not carry penalties, growing pressure on governments to do more to tackle global warming could soon change this. For roasters, it’s better to stay ahead not just of the competition, but of new regulations.

recyclable coffee bag
Roasters should make recycling symbols as clear as possible on their coffee bags

Adhering to new regulations 

The most important thing that coffee businesses can do to adhere to and make the most of the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act is to switch to sustainable, recyclable, and plastic-free materials in their packaging and takeaway cups.

Predominantly, this involves switching to compostable or fully recyclable materials; but it also means thinking about the use of plastic throughout the supply chain.

If a company’s coffee cups come packaged in a plastic-wrapped box, for example, then this will automatically mitigate some of the benefits created by using recyclable cups.

Another important step that companies should take is to make sure that they are informed about the materials they use and that they clearly communicate to their consumers how those materials should be recycled.

Companies should familiarise themselves with the various recycling symbols, which can sometimes be confusing for consumers.

As much as possible, they should look to use and distribute products that feature the green “recycle” arrow, which indicates that products can be widely and easily recycled.

Though these are small steps, they could go a long way if introduced on a large scale. They could offer significant benefits to companies, helping them stay ahead of the curve of the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act and other new policies like it.

Most importantly, though, they could start to stem the endless pile of plastic waste that continues to be produced each year.   

kraft paper coffee bag
Switching to sustainable coffee bags has never been more urgent

The need to switch to sustainable coffee packaging has never been so urgent.

As more and more countries introduce rules regarding plastic waste, both cafés and roasters could find themselves in an awkward position if they haven’t already made the transition.

At MTPak Coffee, we can help you move seamlessly from plastic to fully recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable coffee bags.

Our experienced team can guide you through the entire process, from choosing pouch types to adding extra components, such as BPA-free degassing valves.

For information about our plastic-free coffee bags, contact our team.

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