The plastics recycling system in the United States needs major help. That was a clear area of bipartisan agreement at a recent U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing in Washington.
But what to do about it from a science perspective — and what role federal research spending should play in developing new technology around recycling — was less clear.
Both the subcommittee's top Democrat, Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., and its top Republican, Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., opened the June 24 hearing by noting that the U.S. recycles a very low 9 percent of its plastics.
"There's no one-size-fits-all solution here," said Stevens, who pointed to projections that virgin plastic production will quadruple by 2050. "Historically, the U.S. has not done the best job at recycling. We recycle less than 9 percent of our plastic waste."
Testimony focused on potential technology options to deal with that, including new recycling processes, robotics, packaging design and more research into nonfossil fuel plastics.
A witness from the American Chemistry Council, for example, pushed support for chemical recycling, a process that breaks down the molecular bonds of traditional plastics to build new polymers. It's seen as a technological fix for hard-to-recycle plastics.
But several witnesses told the Subcommittee on Research and Technology that Congress should step up funding to find new plastics made from renewable feedstocks like plants and give more attention to climate impacts from growing plastic production.
Marc Hillmyer, director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota, said research around renewably sourced plastics is "decades behind" work on the fossil fuel-based polymers that dominate today.
"Significant effort, support and new initiatives are imperative for future generations to enjoy the benefits of plastics while simultaneously eliminating their negative consequences," he told the subcommittee. "It's pretty clear that turning to renewable resources for plastics will ultimately be the future."
Hillmyer said that plastics are "remarkable materials" and are a key to medical treatments, food preservation and reducing carbon footprints by doing things like making cars lighter.
But he also urged Congress to fund research to move away from fossil fuel-based polymers for disposables.
"Using oil and gas to make plastics that typically have very short lifetimes, end up in the environment and cause damage to our environment, is simply unsustainable," he said.
The hearing was called by Stevens, who chairs the subcommittee, to get input on the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Research Act, a bill that she and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, reintroduced earlier this year.
The legislation calls for Washington to develop a national strategy for plastic waste reduction, fund a research program around waste and recycling, and develop standards for plastics recycling. It would set aside at least $425 million over five years for that.