Washington — For Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, the federal government should do more to find and help commercialize alternatives to single-use, fossil-based plastics and to look specifically at bioplastics and reusable packaging.
That was a message he brought to an Oct. 26 Senate hearing that he led, "Evaluating Material Alternatives to Single-Use Plastics," one day after he re-introduced congressional Democrats' main plastics environmental legislation, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.
The hearing didn't debate specific legislation, and it wasn't always clear what the best federal policy options would be to encourage a move away from fossil fuel-based plastics.
But senators from both parties bemoaned the challenging economics of recycling and asked witnesses what should be done, including options involving chemical recycling of plastic waste and moving to alternative materials.
"The damage being done by plastic pollution is inspiring many companies to develop alternatives to fossil plastics, often marketed as green or natural," Merkley said in an opening statement. "Some of those alternatives are referred to as bioplastics. That sounds like a win for everyone.
"Companies get the benefit of continuous single-use items and packaging that is lighter and more durable than glass or aluminum," Merkley said. "And in the most successful implementation of this vision, consumers get the peace of mind knowing that the packaging or single-use item they discard is being reused or composted."
The top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee panel, Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mullin, urged his colleagues to consider the benefits of plastics in auto parts, as food packaging and in single-use medical products like blood bags.
"While improperly managed single-use plastics can contribute to our plastic waste issues, certain types of single-use plastics provide essential, invaluable uses for us that need to be considered in discussing alternatives," Mullin said.
Several witnesses backed Merkley's push for more work on alternatives, with Marcus Eriksen, the head of marine plastic-oriented environmental group 5 Gyres, pointing to new research his group has done that he said shows promise for some bioplastics like polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA.
"We urgently need smart policies," Eriksen said. "Businesses that reuse and refill are thriving, and biomaterials are functional alternatives to some kinds of packaging."
He told the hearing that 5 Gyres is finishing up a study looking at degradation in six ocean and land environments around the United States, comparing 22 different products such as plastic straws, cutlery and packaging film made from fossil plastics or bioplastics.
To illustrate what he said was the urgency of the problem, he brought to the hearing a mass of plastic bags and other trash, about the size of an inflatable beach ball, that he pulled from the stomach of a dead camel on a research trip to Kuwait.
"We estimate about 2,000 plastic bags in this mass in one camel's guts," he said. "We're not talking about cellphones or car bumpers or blood bags. When you talk about harm, we're talking about single-use, throwaway plastics. They're ubiquitous across the globe."
Erin Simon, vice president and head of plastic waste and business for the World Wildlife Fund, said all material choices have environmental impacts. While she urged moving away from fossil-based polymers, she said it is important to carefully weigh all impacts.
"It is critical that we take necessary steps to source and use alternatives that [have] stronger environmental and societal benefits [from] when compared to the conventional plastic," she said. "Both virgin glass and metal have intensive extraction processes, so their overall sustainability performance is largely tied to our ability to recapture these materials for reuse and recycling.
"Even as we look for solutions to reduce and replace, we still might need some virgin plastic, but it doesn't need to come from fossil fuels," she said.
Both Simon and Eriksen urged the committee to consider policy options like extended producer responsibility and national bottle bills as tools to reduce demand for virgin plastics, as well as federal policy to encourage better product design for recyclability and compostability.
"Innovation is not going to happen just in the technologies and the materials; it's going to be the systems to manage them," Simon said.
Another witness, the head of a Spanish startup chemical recycling technology company, urged senators to consider that technology as a tool to reduce demand for virgin fossil plastic.
"Our midterm objective is to decouple plastic production from fossil-based sources," said Humberto Kravetz, CEO of GSF UpCycling, which uses pyrolysis to recycle waste plastics into oil that could then be remade into new plastics.
Republicans on the panel quizzed Kravetz on the role of that technology in helping recycling in rural areas in the United States.
He told the panel the technologies have to scale up. He said his company, whose legal name is Graphene Synthetic Fuels SL, will launch its first commercial facility in Europe this year and hopes to bring its technology to the United States for licensing by the middle of 2024.
"The concept of changing waste plastic into usable plastic is key," Kravetz said. "The incentives have to be on actually giving value to the plastic so that it doesn't end up in the environment in the first place and build on technologies that can scale."
Merkley, who at one point said that "plastics are made from climate chaos-causing fossil fuels," closed the hearing by arguing that chemical recycling can be energy intense and emit pollutants.
He said the overall policy goal should be to move toward technologies with the least environmental impact.
"A solar panel takes up land space; a wind turbine can kill birds and it disturbs the viewshed and it requires electric lines to connect it," Merkley said. "There is nothing that doesn't have an impact. Our goal is to find the minimum, most sustainable strategy."