Steve Alexander, APR aim to transform recycling: In Other Words

May 21, 2024
Design standards and better collection and sorting protocols are key to making the plastics circular economy a reality, he says.

By Karen Hanna

In an industry besieged by concerns over plastics’ environmental costs, Steve Alexander counts himself and his team among the “good guys.” The president and CEO of the Association of Plastics Recyclers [APR], Alexander looks forward to the rollout of sorting protocols that could make it easier for manufacturers and brand owners to ensure their packaging can be recycled. He talked recently with Karen Hanna, Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing senior staff writer, about the initiative, along with APR’s other efforts to achieve the group’s ultimate goal — as he says to “transform the recycling landscape.” 

Can you tell me how you got started working in sustainability? 

Alexander: I was always drawn to it. 

I live in New England. Most in New England were early adopters of deposit legislation in bottle bills, so I was always involved with that. I've been involved in the plastics packaging and plastics recycling industry since about 1989. It’s been a primary component of my life for a long time. I was doing some advocacy work for a while. Then, I was hired by a plastics group a long time ago, to work on plastics regulatory issues. I was in that arena for about three years. 

I was involved in all sorts of packaging work, among other issues with Eastman Kodak Co. for 10 years. People don't realize, but the single-use camera, which people call the disposable camera, it's probably one of the most environmentally friendly and recycled packages ever made, because we had a take-back program where we actually took back over 95 percent of those cameras and recycled them and filled them with new film. The whole aspect of how to make packaging more environmentally friendly was really part and parcel of [my time] at Eastman Kodak for a long time. 

When I left, I was doing some independent consulting work on a host of issues. I was asked to write a white paper on plastics recycling, and then APR was looking for someone to run their operation, and they hired me, and we've been able to grow the organization since then. I was brought on because of that activity, what I had done in the plastics packaging industry prior to that. I was very fortunate. APR came to me because it was just something I'd already been engaged in, so it worked out really well. 

How has APR evolved over the time you’ve headed it up? 

Alexander: From the early days, when APR was a much smaller organization, [till now] we’re over 300 members. More important is that our testing program, our design guide, the recognition programs, absent government regulation, our testing protocols and design standards are essentially the industry standards.  

We’re not a standards organization, but, in fact, in a B2B world, what you hear quite a bit is that companies want APR recognition that would help people understand that this product, this innovation, what have you, is compatible with recycling. Our design platform is the design platform for the U.S. Plastics Pact. Our design guide has been translated into multiple languages, so we have global impact; it’s just grown. Our testing protocols are the only testing protocols, the only engineering standard to ensure a package or innovation is in fact recyclable. Over the last several years, it’s become very clear we’re sort of essential to ensure a package is actually recyclable, given the current marketplace. Our guide is one of the foremost authoritative guides in the world, whether or not something is recyclable.  

Until the federal government comes out and says, “OK, you need to do this for it to be called recyclable,” ours is the only engineering standard that exists. The interest has grown over the years. As the policy apparatus has started focusing on regulatory activity and requirements on certain things like recycling rates, recycled content, we’ve become much more of a technical resource. The growth has reflected the market interest in recycling. We’re the organization of recyclers that essentially says, “These are the facts. And we do this every day, so we’re the ones that can tell you whether something is recyclable.” That interest has grown dramatically. 

What are some of the bigger initiatives that you’re currently focused on? 

Alexander: At our soul, we’re a technical organization. We’re very basic blocking and tackling. I mean, we look at this from a reality standpoint. We’re sort of a problem solver [for] plastics packaging recycling. 

First thing you’ve got to do in order to improve recycling, you’ve got to make sure your packages are designed to be recycled. No. 2, it’s got to be collected, and then it’s got to be able to be sorted properly.  

We have 9,000 recycling programs in this country; they all take different things. We need some uniformity in terms of programs. Then, we need consistent market demand [for recycled] material. You can’t have people going in and out of the marketplace; we need consistent demand. So, we’re looking at things like long-term contracts, mandated recycled content. 

Policy must be a driver in making plastics packaging more sustainable. It’s fairly new for us. Voluntary efforts over the last 20-30 years, it’s full of fits and starts. We were the first organization in the plastic space to call for mandated recycled content back in 2006. Now, that’s become more of an accepted talking point. You have several states now that have implemented recycled content requirements. Our real focus at this point is working to ensure that collection programs collect material that is necessary to meet sustainability claims. We can only recycle what’s made available to us to recycle.  

In the next few weeks, we’ll publish the fourth component of a sortation potential protocol, which essentially will allow a package designer or manufacturer or brand to determine whether or not their package will sort in the proper stream. We didn’t do this just for plastic; this is all materials. This is the first time this has ever been done. When that comes out, that’ll be a huge impact in the market.  

Do APR design guides address the new materials entering the market? 

Alexander: Our design guide is a dynamic process. We’re constantly updating our design guide. We see all this new packaging innovation — a lot of it is non-recyclable replacing historically recyclable packaging. The challenge is because these new packaging innovations may pump sales, people are going to be reluctant to get away from them. So, we have to develop technology, standards and guidelines to deal with these types of materials.  

A big focus right now is, how do you deal with multi-layer material, multi-laminate material, pouches and things like that? Those are new innovations from a packaging standpoint in the last six or seven years; a lot of our infrastructure is based in the last 20-30 years. It’s like asking a 1978 Chevrolet Chevette to meet California emissions standards. 

People have to understand you can’t just snap your fingers. You have to develop the technology, you have to make sure it works.  

We’re dealing with it. 

In the last 10 years alone, you’ve got NIR sortation that has really enhanced sortation. APR has worked with label manufacturers to develop a floatable label, which is a huge innovation. We’ve worked with manufacturers of black materials so that can be identified on the screen. We’re constantly evolving. 

When it comes to recycling, how much of a barrier is confusion over what’s recyclable? 

Alexander: It comes back to labeling, what the Green Guides from the FTC [U.S. Federal Trade Commission] allow to be called recyclable or how they frame that. We’re very clear on, we think the green guides need to be much more prescriptive in terms of what a company can place on their label and how they use the term “recyclable.” For instance, the consumer thinks that when you see the term “recycled content,” that term is based on material they have used and discarded in the system, [that] it’s not post-industrial material.  

If you clarify what you can put on a label, that will go a long way toward reducing consumer confusion. You can’t blame the consumer. All of us in my household, questions are there every day, “Is this recyclable?” In our design guide, we have something called APR preferred. That means it’s recyclable. That’s sort of the gold standard. If we were able to maintain a system that referenced the APR-preferred design designation, we’d be in much better shape. But there are a lot of different forces and different interests in this activity, and not everything is the way I would prefer. We're just one of many voices in this field. 

What role might Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation play in advancing recycling? 

Alexander: EPR right now is the next big thing. 

We’re looking at EPR requirements, we’re looking at, in some states, deposit requirements. We’ll be involved aggressively from a policy perspective going forward. 

EPR is certainly going to be a key player to ensure the regulations that are implemented actually solve the problem.  

There are so many things that work against recycling. You have low landfill tipping fees, you have [low] virgin resin pricing. Hopefully, this is one avenue that will allow us to create the system that can sustain itself and generate the material we need to meet sustainability commitments. 

This will be the mechanism that will finally monetize the system in a way that will allow for investment in infrastructure, so we’re collecting the right material, we can process the amount of material to help brands meet their sustainability goals. What’s important about the EPR system is the brands have a role in the investment in it. Brands need to understand they are the source of their own recycled content they claim they want to put in their packaging.  

We’re just coming to the cusp of some nuts and bolts being put on paper, relative to EPR legislation being passed. The next couple years are going to be critical to seeing how these programs actually work. Fingers crossed, this works. We think they’ll work — they’ve worked in other countries — but, you know, the United States is different. 

The worst thing we can do is use this time of heightened attention on the recycling and plastics packaging issue and come up with potential solutions which don’t solve the problem, and then, because we all have ADD, move on to something else. We need to make sure what happens now actually addresses the core of the problem. 

How receptive are brand owners to the changes they need to make toward circularity? 

Alexander: I think they’re more aware of the impacts of containers that are not appropriately designed and the impact on the marketplace’s ability to generate for them the content they need to meet their goals. 

We need brands to commit to buying material on a long-term basis. Rather than looking at recycled resin as an additionality to the product, as a marketing opportunity to their consumer who has said they want containers to be more sustainable, more environmentally friendly, whatever, it’s just looked at as a cost basis, and you can't expect someone to take a product and completely re-manufacture this into a new commodity and not have some additionality in terms of cost. There needs to be a change in how recycled material is looked at, not just on a cost basis, but also, from say, an additionality to the package. It’s a way for brands to actually communicate to their consumers that, “You’ve wanted us to be more sustainable; here is our demonstrable commitment to you.” Everything comes down to price, unfortunately. 

For sustainability to work in the U.S., is federal legislation necessary? 

Alexander: To me, it’s a red herring when people say, “Well, you know, it’s a system of federalism, and all the states will always be different.” States don’t always have to be different. We have a 55-mile-an-hour speed limit in most states.  

The fact of the matter is, the bedrock of the United States government system is that certain things states control, the federal government can create a template and can recommend guidelines. The reality is, all you need is three or four fairly significant states to follow those guidelines and [it] becomes a de facto national standard. Having federal mandates really introduces a whole other third rail to a political discussion that sometimes gets in the way of solving the problem. But there’s nothing to stop the government from developing guidelines. 

What role can machine builders and plastics processors play in advancing recycling? 

Alexander: I’m fond of saying the plastics packaging industry and plastics recycling industry is really sort of the Silicon Valley ... because it’s a very technologically focused activity.  

We’re going to need capacity to recycle more material faster and hopefully more economically. How do we do that? Well, you do that through machinery and invention and technology. 

We’ve talked about the new materials, the new machines, the new wash lines that are coming out, etc., there is a huge role to play. And then, of course, we’re talking about AI and robotics coming on and helping to pick up more packages. There’s always a need for capital-intensive investment around new technology, new AI, new software.  

What do you say to people who say recycling doesn’t work? 

Alexander: First of all, when we recycle 5 billion pounds of material in a year and employ a couple hundred thousand people in the marketplace – I’d like to know what they say doesn't work. Recycling works. But recycling is only one part of a system. There are five things that have to happen for something to be recyclable: It’s got to be designed appropriately; it’s got to be collected; it’s got to be able to sort; it’s got to be able to process; and there needs to be a demand market. Industry has essentially addressed four of those five. The one we have not addressed, which we don’t control, is the supply. How do you get the supply? The average household has about 77 pounds of PET material in it on an annual basis, but only 27 pounds of that make it into the recycling bin. You’ve got to fix that. You fix that, you fix labeling, recycling takes care of itself.  

We have to make it easy. We have to make it as easy to recycle as it is to throw out trash. It’s as simple as that.  

Can we get there? 

Alexander: Oh, absolutely. 

When you think about it, the tsunami of negative activity that is coming at plastics recycling, it’s tied up with plastics, and it’s tied up with all the negative media stuff. And yet, we’re still recycling 5 to 7 billion pounds a year. People say, “Well, that’s a drop in the bucket.” That’s 5 billion pounds that doesn’t go into landfill; that’s 5 billion pounds of material which means we never use virgin material. The basis is there. 

Recycling is such a big contributor to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing climate change. That’s something that consumer can physically participate in. You think of all the negative marketing, if you flip that, people will start asking, “How can we help make plastic recycling better?” I think we can do a heck of a lot better. And that’s one of the things we’re trying to accomplish. 

Outside of work, what do you like to do? 

Alexander: I have spent a lot of time with my four kids and coaching sports, baseball, basketball. I’ve done them all. Right now, finishing up hockey. 

What do you want to leave as a legacy? 

Alexander: I don’t think in terms of legacies. I’d like people to just recognize that APR is really the pathway to plastics packaging circularity. My goal is to continue to work to make APR the essential component that people must utilize in terms of plastics recycling. It’s not about me, it’s about the incredible staff we have. They’re so incredible. Sometimes I look at our staff and say, “How are we so lucky to attract these sorts of people, the intellect and the expertise they have?” We’re a trade association. We’re not a hedge fund, we’re not paying a whole lot of money. The passion these people bring to this. ...  

We’ve grown dramatically in the last two years. For several years, we were just contractors. We were like six or seven, but, in the last year, through the commitment our members have made, we’ve been able to transition some of the staff to full-time employees. I think we’re now up to 19 employees. I’m very excited about that. It’s extremely gratifying for us to be able to extend our voice at a level that is critical and productive. I think we’ve been very, very fortunate for the support we’ve received. The people we’ve been able to bring on board are just phenomenal. I’m just so excited I had the opportunity to work with such great folks. The legacy, hopefully, would be APR’s legacy. 

 Just the facts 

WHO IS HE: Steve Alexander, president and CEO of the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) since 2005 



APR GOALS: Increasing the supply and demand of recycled materials, enhancing the quality of recycled materials, and communicating the value of recycling 

About the Author

Karen Hanna | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Karen Hanna covers injection molding, molds and tooling, processors, workforce and other topics, and writes features including In Other Words and Problem Solved for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. She has more than 15 years of experience in daily and magazine journalism.