One thing that gets wide agreement now in the plastics waste debate — from American Chemistry Council policy papers to the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act in Congress — is that the U.S. needs more government mandates for recycled content.
Such laws, the thinking goes, would support markets for recycled plastic, help cities and towns pay for better curbside collection and be a no-brainer to help make plastics more circular.
But Mark Murray, a veteran of 30 years of work on several California plastic recycled-content laws, has words of caution: Think carefully to get the policies right.
"We've had some successes, we've had some failures and we've had a lot of false starts," said Murray, who heads the Sacramento-based environmental group Californians Against Waste.
He spoke in a Jan. 6 webinar with representatives from government and industry on how to design effective recycled-content laws, a policy area that he and other panelists said is generating much more interest in state governments.
One of his main arguments to the more than 600 participants on the webinar is that industry needs to get serious about recycled content in plastic products, and to be successful, any new laws should have set stretch goals that push market development.
He pointed to a 2020 California law requiring recycled content in plastic beverage bottles, starting at 15 percent this year and rising to 50 percent in 2030, with financial penalties of 20 cents per pound on the shortfall of recycled materials for companies that don't comply.
"My message to the beverage industry is, I think you're in a recycle or die moment," Murray said. "We are seeing public support, policymaker willingness, to ban plastic products. We're seeing the willingness to do that in one or two or three years from the date these policies are being implemented."
He said previous laws passed in California, including what's called the RPPC law from the 1990s, have not proven to be effective because they had too many carveouts, like exempting food containers, and not enough enforcement.
"The classic example of that was California's Rigid Plastic Packaging Container recycling law, which is still on the books, but I think at this point contributes zero value to recycling, market development, recycling funding and producer responsibility," Murray said.
Some other states are also looking at recycled content for plastic packaging. Washington state adopted a law last year requiring it, New Jersey lawmakers are seriously considering their own version, and legislation for national mandates have been introduced in Congress.
As well, the idea's getting more support within the industry. ACC released a policy proposal last year that backed a 30 percent recycled-content requirement for plastic packaging by 2030.
And the groups organizing the webinar, the Northeast Recycling Council and the Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association, unveiled their own model state legislation for recycled content in plastic products on Jan. 4 and are accepting public comments until Feb. 11.
"Among the 11 Northeast states [in NERC] there is a great deal of interest in recycled-content laws, including states that have seen legislation filed in recent years," said Lynn Rubinstein, executive director of NERC. "With increased international attention to plastic and plastic markets, it seems reasonable to anticipate that states will be considering this route."
So clearly there's a lot of interest in the idea.
But Murray said not every state is going to adopt California's ambitious policy, and he said politics will likely play a larger role than policy design.
"Frankly, design of the policy is probably not going to be the barrier to implementation," he said. "I think we all recognize that politics, political will, is going to be the likely barrier."