Democrats in Congress are proposing a 5-cent fee on virgin plastic in single-use products, with half of the money going to efforts to fight climate change and half to general government coffers.
The fee has been added to climate legislation from Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., and chair of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources. It would put a 5-cent-per-pound excise tax on virgin resin and establish a Virgin Plastic Trust Fund.
Grijalva added the plastics fee June 8 to his Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act, first introduced in 2020.
"We have a new addition to the bill," he said, in video comments released with the legislation. "We can put a fee on producers of plastic. This will help pay for ocean conservation and cut down on the wasteful material choking our marine life and causing environmental injustices across our communities."
As well, legislation could be coming in the Senate. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., on June 22 retweeted a Washington Post editorial calling for a virgin plastics tax, saying "Stand by. One is on the way."
Whitehouse was one of the primary sponsors of the industry-backed Save Our Seas legislation and told an audience at the Global Plastics Summit last year that recycling in the U.S. faces a "reckoning."
Meanwhile, Grijalva's bill directs President Joe Biden's administration to write regulations on determining the amount of virgin plastic in items in single-use plastic products covered by the legislation.
Grijalva's proposal would specifically exempt plastics used in medical products, infant formula, meal replacements, containers regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, feminine hygiene and sexual health products.
It says it would include plastic products routinely recycled or thrown out after one use, and derived from petroleum, natural gas or "vegetation-based resources."
The plastics fee is part of broad climate legislation from Grijalva and it has 26 other Democratic House co-sponsors, including some active around plastics issues such as Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif.; Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine; and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore.
The Plastics Industry Association in Washington said the potential resin tax is "unreasonable" and called on policymakers to "recognize the benefits plastics bring to our daily lives."
"Haphazardly adding a resin tax to pay for a laundry list of unrelated policy items is an unreasonable approach to achieving environmental solutions," the group said. "We all want cleaner oceans. [The group] supports the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, now law, which improves international cooperation and cleanup."
The association said the industry is "pouring enormous resources" into recycling and waste management efforts worldwide, as well as innovation around materials and products.
The legislation also includes a provision directing the Biden administration to negotiate international agreements or other pacts to reduce virgin plastic production. Specifically, it calls for an accord that "effectively reduces global single-use plastic production from virgin polymers to 10 percent of 2010 levels by 2050." The bill does not include details on how that would be implemented.
The environmental group Oceana supports the fee as a way to reduce single-use plastics.
Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director for the group, said it would build on local and state bans, taxes, container deposits and policies that support reusable packaging. And she pointed to a referendum in California in 2022 that seeks to put fees on single-use plastic packaging.
"Though this may be the first time Congress is considering a virgin plastic tax, we've seen fees on single-use plastic bags drive change around the country through city and state policies over the past decade," she said.
Leavitt said the global plastics industry would be the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, if it were a country.
"We can't fight climate change without fighting plastic," she said. "The two are intrinsically linked, thanks to plastic's colossal carbon footprint. Plastic contributes to climate change at every stage of its life cycle, producing an estimated 1.8 gigatons of global greenhouse gas emissions each year."
Grijalva's bill is much broader than the plastics fee, although he highlighted the resin tax in his comments.
The legislation would also seek to set up carbon sinks in federal waters, update fishing fleet fuel regulations, promote offshore wind energy, limit new offshore fossil fuel development and eliminate fishing subsidies in trade agreements, among other steps.
The plastics tax came up briefly at a hearing Grijalva chaired on his ocean legislation on June 22. The congressman mentioned it in opening remarks and several panelists commented in favor, but it was not discussed by other members of Congress.
Marce Gutierrez-Graudins, head of the environmental group Azul, said she "strongly supported" a plastics tax, and in written comments with his testimony, Hawaii state legislator Chris Lee said assessing fees on virgin resin could help local governments clean up plastic waste.
He said beaches in his state are "littered with microplastic" and argued that California spends $400 million a year keeping trash from getting into waterways.