The 2020 U.S. election has more significance than usual for the plastics industry, with the direction of national policy around plastic waste heavily influenced by which party controls the White House and Congress.
It may not be a front burner issue in campaigns, but legislation about plastics, recycling and waste has been flying around Congress the last two years in ways that are new for the United States. And both presidential candidates have weighed in on plastics bans and fracking.
"I see somewhat of a perfect storm in the political and policy issues around plastics," said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who has cosponsored several plastics related bills.
Pingree, who represents Maine's coastal communities, says there is growing public concern about plastics in the ocean and microplastics in food, as well as the impact on taxpayers from poor recycling markets, all driving legislative interest.
"We've seen the crash of recycling, which has presented a big dilemma for our communities," she said. "That's led many of our states and cities to ban plastics."
Lawmakers and industry lobbyists often point to the large amount of bipartisanship around the issue, such as in the Save Our Seas marine plastic legislation, and they say that concern from lawmakers in both parties will drive interest no matter the election results.
But there are also very different visions in Congress about where to go next, making control of the presidency and Senate key for determining which ideas stand a chance of becoming law.
Some proposals have a traditional focus, emphasizing more money for curbside recycling or research in areas like chemical recycling to help deal with low plastics recycling rates. Bills like the Recover Act, the Recycle Act and the Plastic Waste and Recycling Act fall into that camp.
Other lawmakers push ideas that are very new at the national level in the U.S., like single-use plastic bans, producer responsibility that would have industry paying more to bolster recycling, bottle bills and tougher regulations on pellet pollution from factories. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is in that camp.
It's a very fluid situation, and that has the top lobbyist for one industry association concerned if the Senate and White House switch to Democratic control.
"If there is one party control in the House, Senate and the administration, the likelihood that legislation harmful to the industry could move through, it's very likely," said Matt Seaholm, vice president of government affairs at the Plastics Industry Association.
But Seaholm also cautioned that even with one-party control in Washington, it can be difficult to pass major legislation: "I think we've seen that in recent years."
If Democrats wind up controlling both chambers and the presidency, Seaholm thinks the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act could be the basis of activity in Congress.
"I think it's the start of a vehicle that moves next year, especially if there is one-party control," Seaholm said.
But he also said that even if control of the White House and chambers in Congress remain divided between parties, interest in plastics environmental legislation will grow.
Pingree agreed on both points: That the direction of legislation depends on the election, and also that if Washington remains divided, concern will keep growing.
"A lot depends on probably the partisan balance of the administration and the Senate," she said. "If the balance changes, I think you'll see a lot more climate change and environmental legislation move all the way through and be signed by the White House.
"But even if we don't have a change, I think that this is a growing issue," Pingree said. "I think we have a growing awareness of plastics."
Pingree, who signed on as a co-sponsor of both industry-backed Save Our Seas proposals and the environmentalist-favored Break Free bill, said she thought provisions of the Break Free act could be broken off and moved separately, or attached to language in appropriations bills. She sits on the Appropriations Committee.
"I think the demand will continue to increase for having legislation that moves forward, both at the federal level and in the states," she said.