Washington — Operators of city recycling programs came to Capitol Hill March 4 to urge a much bigger federal role in tackling plastic waste and recycling problems, raising ideas like extended producer responsibility (EPR), fees on some packaging and laws requiring recycled content in things like PET bottles.
The push for stronger federal action garnered some support from Democrats at a congressional hearing, but also sizable pushback and skepticism from Republicans on the panel, one of whom declared himself "pro-plastic" and against restrictions on plastics manufacturing.
It was a wide-ranging hearing and at times seemed to lack a clear focus, but recycling officials from Los Angeles and other cities told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that China closing its markets to imports of plastic and paper recyclables in 2018 dealt a major blow to the economics of their programs.
Los Angeles previously turned a $4 million annual profit from its curbside recycling program, but China's restrictions help flip that to an $8 million loss last year and a projected $12 million loss this year, said Enrique Zaldivar, general manager of the Los Angeles Sanitation and Environment Bureau.
In both testimony and written comments, he urged Washington to take a stronger role than it historically has.
He endorsed EPR, fees, more attention on plastic waste and single-use products and steps to develop markets for recyclables, including developing more of a regional recycling economy with Mexico and Canada.
"The burden of paying for wastes without markets falls on municipalities," Zaldivar said. "Industry has long expected taxpayers or ratepayers to absorb the burden of throwaway items and to pay billions of dollars for a system that's being crushed under the weight of the problem.
"The systems are now failing everyone, including consumer brand owners and the plastics industry," he said. "It points to a crisis in recycling markets."
He endorsed legislation like the Recover Act, a $500 million recycling grant program supported by the plastics industry.
But he also praised new legislation that plastics makers have strongly opposed, from Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., which would set up EPR programs, ban some single-use plastics and restrict expansion at certain plastics facilities. Zaldivar urged Congress to consider many approaches.
But several Republicans on the committee said they were concerned about unintended consequences from banning plastics and replacing them with materials they said may have a higher environmental footprint.
"I know some people think it would be easier to ban plastics, but I do not think it's a good policy to ban a material because you do not like it," said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., a co-chair of the House Recycling Caucus.
"We should explore whether banning plastics would actually exacerbate the problem Congress thinks it is solving with a ban, as well as what other risk trade-offs occur," he said.
Both Shimkus and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the top Republican on the committee, said they did want the federal government expanding into setting waste policy for curbside and other recycling of nonhazardous waste, saying it should be left to states and local governments.