The push in Washington for tougher rules around plastic waste got a boost this week, with the House Democrats' major climate change legislation calling for temporary limits on new resin plant construction, along with measures like recycled content for packaging, a national bottle bill and standardizing labeling around recycling.
The Clean Future Act, which targets having net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in large parts of the U.S. economy, is coming from New Jersey congressman Frank Pallone, who heads the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee. It incorporates many ideas from 2020's Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, and I say it gives those ideas a boost on the Hill because of Pallone's top spot on the House committee and by tying them more tightly to climate priorities of the Biden administration.
That's not to say that these plastics measures are automatically on a fast track to become law, as some of them would be major changes in national policy.
A lot of the immediate attention and headlines from the 891-page bill dealt with greenhouse gas targets and climate, since that's a pillar of the Biden administration's agenda.
But Pallone's endorsement of the plastics parts — they are new additions to a climate bill he introduced last year — adds to momentum.
Pallone is also the top Democrat on the bipartisan House Recycling Caucus, steeping him in the issues, and he organized a hearing last year on plastic waste problems. His bill also calls for a task force to examine extended producer responsibility.
As well, the legislation picks up environmental justice priorities of the Biden administration, an area that conservation groups have been pressuring Washington to look at with the plastics and petrochemical buildout in the Gulf Coast.
A United Nations human rights panel added to that this week, specifically calling a planned Formosa Plastics plant and other industrial expansion in parts of Louisiana examples of environmental racism.
In short, Pallone's bill shows plastics environmental concerns will remain active on Washington's agenda, even more so in a Biden administration, and will be closely tied into climate.
Supporters of Pallone's legislation said they supported linking disposable packaging into that larger need to address greenhouse gases.
"The bill … recognizes the role plastic and other disposable products play in increasing emissions, and includes proven solutions like the bottle bill," the U.S. Public Interest Research Group said. "It sets the kind of bold and achievable interim and long-term targets we need to tackle the climate crisis."
The plastics industry, however, warned that the bill would hurt industry jobs and hinder development of new technologies like advanced, or chemical, recycling, that it said will be crucial to tackling plastic waste.
"Addressing climate change is a laudable goal, but the Clean Future Act — as currently introduced — aims to end the manufacture of one of our country's most valuable and sustainable materials: plastics," said Tony Radoszewski, president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association.
"Multiple life cycle analyses show that plastics are the most sustainable material in comparison to all existing alternatives, including glass, aluminum and paper," he said. "We already have the tools and technologies to address plastic waste and to infinitely repurpose plastic into new materials and products through advanced recycling."
There's a lot to debate, and it's not going to be settled in this column.
Even if some of the measures don't become law, you can bet the Biden EPA and other agencies will take a closer look. I put the concerns about air and water pollution around plastics factories and petrochemical zones in that category, having seen some of that in person.
Ditto for single-use packaging materials. If they're recycled at very low levels, don't have any real recycled content and have confusing recyclability labeling — you can put a lot of plastics packaging in that category — then the industry can expect the kind of attention the Pallone bill is bringing.
Toloken is a Plastics News assistant managing editor and author of the BRICS and Plastics blog. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.