Washington — Worries over plastic waste and ocean pollution had a rare day in Congress Sept. 26, with calls at a Senate committee for Washington to take a much bigger role in managing plastic, even if there was no clear consensus on what exactly that means.
Cal Dooley, CEO of the American Chemistry Council, pushed for a larger role for pyrolysis and waste-to-energy. He wanted new laws to put those technologies on the same regulatory playing field as recycling and manufacturing — and not label them as hazardous materials as they sometimes are today — so that they can attract more investment.
But others, like Jonathan Baillie, chief scientist of National Geographic, pushed for plastic bag fees and financial incentives like deposits to boost bottle recycling, noting that Norway recycles 97 percent of its plastic bottles. The U.S. recycles about 30 percent.
Baillie urged senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee to have Washington set broad parameters for plastics use, which would mark a new step for the federal government in a policy area traditionally left to states and cities.
"Perhaps the time has come to examine the feasibility of a federal regulatory approach that would provide minimum standards on plastic use and recycling," Baillie said. "The approach could provide incentives and mandates — carrots and sticks — for states to adopt the right recycling protocols and provide national standards for plastic import, manufacturing and use."
Several senators said they were looking for input for future legislation and noted that ocean waste is a bipartisan issue of concern to both Republicans and Democrats. It was not clear what direction that legislation could take.
There was consensus on the need to encourage more innovation in technology and collection of recyclable materials. The hearing came the same week as both the Senate and House passed a small piece of legislation, the Save Our Seas Act, to bolster federal marine debris programs.
At the hearing, speakers from ACC, National Geographic and Coca-Cola Co., along with senators, all said there was a strong role for business and the public sector to develop new technology and approaches to material collection and recycled content use.