Nashville, Tenn. — Interest in plastics waste and recycling has clearly picked up in Congress in the last year.
But if Las Vegas were taking bets on what Washington will ultimately do, would smart money go for revolution or evolution?
With the federal government seemingly constantly gridlocked, it may be a safer bet to expect more evolutionary, incremental change. But the political landscape is uncertain, with both Democrats and Republicans noting rising public concerns, even if they offer different solutions.
The debate played out in a very well attended panel discussion with congressional aides at the Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade show in Nashville in mid-February.
Arguing that there's pressure for bigger change was Jonathan Black, a senior policy adviser to Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who in February introduced a far-reaching bill, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020.
In a first for national legislation in the U.S., it would ban some single-use plastics, set recycled content requirements and impose major packaging recycling mandates on industry by setting up so-called producer responsibility organizations, among some of its main provisions.
"I am really convinced that something is going to happen here and that this bill is going to be part of the conversation shaping," Black said.
He argued that growing pressure from the public, cities and companies around shortcomings in recycling, combined with loss of export markets in China and taxpayer-financed local recycling programs having to deal with hard-to-recycle packaging, will lead to more involvement from Washington.
"People are sick and tired of plastic pollution," he said. "They're tired of sorting things that don't get recycled. They're tired of a broken system that is not circular and it's just coming out of their pockets."
But Sarah Peery, a legislative assistant to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, argued that incremental change is more likely in today's political climate in Washington. She said Portman is focused on more targeted legislation with bipartisan support that they believe can more easily pass.
Portman introduced the Recycle Act in November. It would set up a five-year, $75 million grant program for education programs around recycling.
"Right now our focus is on proposals and legislation that we feel has broad bipartisan consensus, if you will, support to get across the finish line because we think there's a desperate need for the federal government to engage," Peery said. "There are things that should be done and can be done at the federal level, like yesterday."
But Peery said Portman is also hearing clearly about problems with recycling. It heated up last year, she said, with cities bringing up concerns about paying for recycling collection.
"One of the reasons we got involved in this was in early 2019 the senator was talking with a mayor from Ohio who said, 'Senator, I'm getting beat up in my town because I had to end our recycling program and my citizens are not happy with me, and so I'm faced with either cutting off our recycling program or charging an exorbitant price for it,'" Peery said.
There has been some more narrowly focused bipartisan legislation, like 2018's Save Our Seas Act. The Recycling Partnership notes more interest in recycling policy in Congress than in past years, driven in part by local government fiscal concerns.
But there are also partisan differences. A March 4 hearing in the House saw Democrats push for a stronger role from the federal government to help raise low plastic recycling rates, while Republicans preferred the traditional split of local and state governments setting packaging recycling policy.
One of the areas that clearly needs to be worked out is how to finance any additional recycling investment, particularly if it's sizable.
Black said Udall's bill would try to shift much more of the costs to industry through producer responsibility organizations, or PROs, rather than entirely taxpayer funds. The PROs would meet recycling targets set by the government but would be designed by industry.
He said the bill envisions 50 percent of the fees collected from the PROs over the first 10 years going toward infrastructure upgrades.
"That is a massive amount of producer money towards these technologies and facilities," Black said. "There are places and room for us to discuss public financing of that, but we do not believe it should be exclusively that, nor do we think that will ever be an adequate amount."
Black told the conference that about half of the legislation's 100 pages deals with the PROs, which, in spite of the plastic-focused name of the bill, apply equally to all packaging materials.
He favored PROs and industry requirements because he said it will be difficult to sustain large investments in recycling infrastructure, such as better sorting technology, without laws mandating recycled content as a way to raise the value of recovered plastic.
Udall's bill would set 25 percent recycled content in plastic bottles by 2025 and task federal agencies to study it for other packaging.
"When you start to add value to these recycled materials, you will see this investment," Black said. "I just don't think you're going to see that type of investment until you have those types of requirements for recycled content and burden on the producers to meet some of these targets."
He also pointed to natural gas fracking and subsidies for that industry giving an "unfair advantage" for the price of virgin plastic compared with recycled materials.
Laws can help ensure that recycled content goals that companies are announcing will in fact happen, he said.
"We do not want folks to be able to say anymore, 'We have these goals to get recycled content into our product, but we're just going to stop short because our shareholders don't want us to spend the money,'" Black said.
He told the industry audience that plastics "have gotten a bad rap," noting benefits in improving medical devices and making cars lighter and more fuel-efficient, a point frequently made by industry officials. But he said concerns over waste need to be dealt with and suggested strong legislation could help public perceptions.
"I think this bill helps improve the image of plastic," Black said.