Washington — In a sign of the long-term shift in plastics industry positions on environmental legislation, the head of the Plastics Industry Association told a Senate hearing Dec. 15 it supports recycled-content requirements, extended producer responsibility and a national bottle bill.
Matt Seaholm, president and CEO of the Washington-based trade group, told a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee the industry sees properly designed laws like those as important to improve the poor performance of plastics recycling.
"The industry has come to a point of accepting a fee on products in order to fund recycling infrastructure because at the heart of the matter ... the infrastructure has simply not kept up, and that's what we have to fund," he told the hearing, referring to extended producer responsibility laws.
The association would also be OK with laws mandating recycled content in plastic products and a national bottle bill, Seaholm said, in response to a question from Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who has introduced national bottle bills.
"There's no doubt that bottle bills work, bottle deposits work; we've seen it," Seaholm said. "Would the industry support a bottle bill, crafted correctly? I think it would certainly be open to that on a national scale, again, crafted correctly."
Another witness at the hearing, Judith Enck, head of the environmental group Beyond Plastics, said she thought "we may have heard breaking news from Mr. Seaholm on a national bottle bill."
"Having the plastics industry support a national bottle bill and getting the details right would be really helpful," she said. "We need a national bottle bill. If you just look at PET plastic beverage bottles, in the 10 states that have bottle bills, the PET recycling rate is 63 percent. Without deposits, it's only 17 percent."
At the hearing, Merkley had been pressing Seaholm on his group's legislative positions, saying that Oregon recycles about 90 percent of the containers in its bottle bill and calling it one of the easier steps that could be taken to help recycling because bottle bills produce a cleaner, more valuable stream of materials.
Seaholm's comments in favor of EPR, recycled-content mandates and bottle bills are not entirely new for the industry, but they do indicate how the plastics sector's public positions have shifted a lot in the last few years.
Other plastics groups have endorsed similar ideas. The American Chemistry Council in 2021 released a five-point federal plan that included support for EPR and recycled-content mandates, and the National Association for PET Container Resources came out with a low-key announcement in 2020 endorsing bottle bills.
But although 10 states passed bottle bills in the 1970s and 1980s, it's proven very difficult for new ones to pass because they often face significant opposition from the beverage and grocery industries.
Plastics companies have sometimes not been major players in bottle bill debates, and instead have followed their customer groups in beverage and retail industries in opposing them. But that opposition has also been softening.
In 2020, Merkley introduced national bottle bill legislation modeled on Oregon's program. He's also a key sponsor of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which has recycled-content requirements and EPR provisions.
Seaholm told Merkley that industry could support well-designed recycled-content laws as a way to help stabilize the system.
"Recycled-content requirements, done reasonably, actually can help spur investment in the infrastructure side of things because the demand is guaranteed to be there," Seaholm said.