Some people in the industry may be afraid of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, the proposed federal strategy for dealing with plastic waste.
But I'm here to talk you off the ledge. The proposal isn't all bad. And don't forget the context: We do have a global plastics waste problem.
Also, I understand that the plastics industry doesn't deserve all the blame. The public is responsible for litter. But this legislation aims to address that, too.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., introduced the bill in Congress on Feb. 11. They've been studying plastic waste issues for the past year.
I'm not a fan of all their proposals. I don't like plastic product bans because I think they encourage people to use products made from other materials that may be less sustainable. The Break Free From Plastic bill calls for federal bans on single-use plastic items including shopping bags, expanded polystyrene foam containers, shipping packaging and plastic utensils.
Banning straws, carryout containers, sporks and grocery bags isn't going to solve the plastic waste problem. But let's admit that those products, as well as cigarette butts, closures and tampon applicators, are significant contributors to litter. Ask anyone who's ever done a beach cleanup.
I also don't like the three-year moratorium on new resin plant construction. The plastics industry is global, and chemical companies are building capacity in the United States because it's the lowest-cost location. It also happens to be the safest, and it should be the least polluting, too. Global demand for plastic is rising. Why not make those investments, and create those jobs, in North America?
But I'm in favor of several of their proposals. To start, I like the idea of hitting pause on allowing exports of plastic waste to developing countries. Overseas plastics recyclers need to prove they are good environmental stewards. Sending bales of trash to places that don't have a good solid waste infrastructure causes problems. For now, we should build the plastics recycling infrastructure in North America instead. It's more sustainable to recycle closer to home.
What else do I like? Well, I'm really excited about the proposed national 10-cent container deposit to boost bottle recycling. I've been writing editorials asking for that for 25 years. Plastic bottles are the low-hanging fruit of the recycling world. They're easy to recycle, they have value, and they account for the bulk of the plastic waste that many households either recycle or throw away.
I've been talking to plastic bottle manufacturers for years who have told me privately that they support deposits. Now they should publicly get behind this proposal. It's in their best interest, since brand owners are making pledges to use more recycled content. Without deposits, they won't have enough material to meet those commitments.
Finally, I'm in favor of some form of extended producer responsibility that would pay for waste collection and recycling programs. EPR is coming to America. I'm encouraged that although the title of the bill is focused on plastics, it's actually broader than that. The Break Free From Plastic bill calls for EPR for all materials used to make single-use products, not just plastics.
Consider it a cost of doing business. Lowenthal himself made that point in the news conference, saying: "If you want to have a plastics industry and you want to grow that industry, we have to change our model in terms of who is responsible and who is paying for it."
Right now the burden of paying for plastic recycling falls on municipalities. Industry can't expect taxpayers to continue to pay billions of dollars for a system that's failing everyone, including brand owners and the plastics industry.
The plastics industry is actually off to a good start. Most companies that are in the single-use plastics business — including processors, suppliers and recyclers — already realize that there's a problem, and they've been working on it. In fact, there are numerous voluntary projects already taking place, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy commitment and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste.
Regardless of the results of the November election, there is going to be federal action on plastics waste. Let's get behind the proposals that give the industry the best opportunity for a sustainable future.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.