Someday, the plastics industry may look back on Halloween 2019 as a turning point.
On Oct. 31, Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., revealed details about the plastics legislation that they've been hinting at since this summer.
As expected, their proposal could fundamentally change the U.S. plastics industry.
Lowenthal and Udall released what they called a "discussion draft" of their bill that's aimed at addressing the global plastic waste crisis.
The bill would create an extended producer responsibility system for plastics companies, and place a national 10-cent deposit on containers of all material types. It would also ban some single-use plastic products beginning in 2022, including lightweight bags, foodservice from expanded polystyrene, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds. It would include exceptions for persons with disabilities.
The proposal would place a fee on non-reusable carryout bags, which would fund litter clean-up and recycling infrastructure.
It would also require minimum recycled content for containers, which would increase over time. And it would also protect state and local governments that want tougher plastics laws — in other words, put an end to the plastics industry's preemption strategy.
On top of all that, their bill would put a moratorium on construction of new plastic resin facilities, to "give environmental agencies the valuable time needed to investigate the cumulative impacts of new plastic-producing facilities on the air, water and climate." And it would update laws aimed at reducing air and water pollution that are the result of plastic manufacturing.
Lowenthal put plastics in the spotlight at an Oct. 29 public hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs. The meeting got extra attention because of the testimony of actor Ted Danson, who is also vice chair for an environmental group called Oceana.
Danson had a strident anti-plastics message, calling for the United States to roll back plastic production. His opinion was countered in the same hearing by the new head of the Washington-based Plastics Industry Association, Tony Radoszewski.
Radoszewski acknowledged that there is a plastic waste problem, but he urged legislators to consider the benefits that plastics offer society before passing laws that would encourage use of alternative materials that are more expensive and generate more greenhouse gas emissions.
His remarks were on target, and they seemed to strike a chord with Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who challenged his colleagues to come up with a way to replace plastics in applications like automotive parts, which improve safety, fuel efficiency and affordability.
"I haven't heard a single alternative offered by the critics of plastics," McClintock said. "I think it's become very clear that plastics are found to be a far better solution economically and environmentally to the materials that we've used in the past."
I hope reasonable people can agree that plastics are essential to modern society. And not just in the frequently cited critical applications, but everywhere else too, including construction, packaging, electronics, consumer products and aerospace.
Still, nearly everyone acknowledges that there is a global plastics pollution problem, and that the U.S. needs to help fix it. The plastics industry is already doing that voluntarily. But don't be surprised to see lawmakers play a part too, regardless of the 2020 elections.
There's much to be alarmed about in the Lowenthal/Udall draft legislation, especially bans and the moratorium on new resin plants. But ideas like national container deposits, minimum recycled content requirements and extended producer responsibility have the potential to help plastics continue to grow and have a sustainable future.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.